The owner-operator/“independent contractor” employment arrangement is common in the trucking industry. When an owner-operator sustains a work-related injury in Illinois, the worker’s compensation carrier for the trucking company almost always denies that the injured truck driver is eligible for worker’s compensation benefits. The basis for the denial is that the owner-operator is an independent contractor, and only employees can receive worker’s compensation benefits when they sustain a work-related injury.
Many owner-operators accept that denial and fail to hire a lawyer to determine whether the denial of worker’s compensation benefits was proper.
That could be a mistake that costs them thousands of dollars in worker’s compensation benefits and access to critical medical care which can help them make a good recovery from their injuries.
A 2007 opinion from the Illinois Supreme Court called Roberson v. Industrial Commission shows that owner-operators may in fact be eligible to receive worker’s compensation benefits when they are hurt on the job.
Roberson was owner-operator who suffered a low back injury while securing a load. The Industrial Commission (the agency that hears worker’s compensation cases in Illinois) found that he was an employee under the Worker’s Compensation Act. The trucking company appealed all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. The main issue it had to decide was whether the owner-operator was an employee for worker’s compensation purposes even though he signed an independent contractor agreement.
The Illinois Supreme Court concluded the Industrial Commission’s factual determination that the truck driver was an employee who could receive workman’s compensation benefits was supported by the evidence. It noted even where there is an independent contractor agreement, this does not necessarily mean that the injured driver cannot be an employee under the Worker’s Compensation Act. The Illinois Supreme Court also considered the employer’s control over the work and the relationship of the work to the essential nature of the employer’s business. In this case, the evidence showed that the trucking company had a great deal of control over the work and that the work performed by the owner-operator was the essence of the business of the trucking company. The Illinois Supreme Court also noted that many other states had ruled that owner-operators were employees of the trucking company for determining eligibility for worker’s compensation benefits.
Before this decision, there were two lines of decisions from the Appellate Court. One line of decisions ruled that owner-operators were not employees under the Worker’s Compensation Act, while the other ruled that they were. The Supreme Court ruled that the two lines of cases could be viewed in a consistent manner because in the cases where the owner-operator was not covered, the Commission had decided under the facts presented that the owner-operator was not an employee, while in the cases where the owner operator was covered, the Commission had drew the opposite factual conclusion from the evidence offered in that case. Because the Illinois Supreme Court only reviews the decisions of the Commission only to decide whether the factual determinations were against the manifest weight of evidence, the Supreme Court decided that the issue of whether an owner-operator was an employee was a factual determination to be decided based on the circumstances of each case. It ended its analysis by finding that the conclusion that Roberson was an employee was supported by the evidence and affirmed that Roberson was entitled to receive worker’s compensation benefits.
There are two main lessons for owner-operators who suffer work-related injuries and are considering filing a worker’s compensation claim against the trucking company:
- You should question whether the denial of your worker’s compensation claim by the insurance company is valid. The worker’s compensation carrier will regularly deny your claim due to the independent contractor agreement. However, the ruling of the Illinois Supreme Court in this case shows that you may be entitled to worker’s compensation benefits for your work-related injury.
- Hiring an experienced Illinois worker’s compensation lawyer who understands the particular issues involved in establishing the employee status of an owner-operator is crucial to establish your right to receive worker’s compensation benefits. The strength of the case that you put on at the Commission is critical in determining the outcome of your case. This is because whether you are considered an employee under the Worker’s Compensation Act is issue of fact to be decided by the Commission. Once this decision is made, courts only review it to determine whether that decision is supported by the evidence. This limited scope of review means that the case needs to be handled properly from the outset.
Our law firm is proud to have assisted many owner-operators in securing worker’s compensation benefits that they were entitled to, even after the insurance company said that they were not. To learn more about your rights as an injured trucker, order your free book written by our Illinois truck accident attorney Barry G. Doyle or call one of the lawyers in our firm at (312) 263-1080 for a free phone consultation.