Workers Compensation Benefits—An Exclusive Remedy

Having proper compensation insurance can protect a church from liability.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that workers compensation benefits are an exclusive remedy, and therefore a church employee who received workers compensation benefits could not sue her church as a result of serious injuries she suffered when she fell down a church stairway.

The church hired a woman to perform light cleaning duties. The woman fell down a stairway during the course of her employment and suffered severe injuries. She currently is in a comatose state as a result of the fall. A guardian was appointed for the victim, and the guardian applied for and received workers compensation benefits on behalf of the victim. The guardian later sued the church for money damages as a result of the injury.

The church claimed that it was immune from liability because workers compensation benefits are the only remedy available to employees for work-related injuries. The court agreed. The state workers compensation law provides that the right of employees to receive workers compensation benefits for work-related injuries or illnesses “shall be in lieu of all rights and remedies as to that injury now existing, either at common law or otherwise against an employer, or its directors, officers, agents, or employees.” As a result, the court ruled that the woman could not sue for damages in addition to the workers compensation benefits she received.

Unfortunately, many churches do not obtain workers compensation insurance, and the result is that they are exposed to potential liability for employee injuries. Further, a church’s general liability insurance will not cover these claims, because employee injuries are excluded under such policies (the assumption is that these injuries will be covered under workers compensation). The uninsured risk can be eliminated through workers compensation insurance. As this case illustrates, workers compensation benefits are an exclusive remedy in most cases, and this means that a church cannot be sued by employees who are receiving workers compensation benefits. Deus v. S.S. Peter and Paul Church, Deus v. S.S. Peter and Paul Church, 820 A.2d 974 (R.I. 2003).

This article first appeared in Church Treasurer Alert, July 2003.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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