Undocumented workers who are injured on the job are eligible for workers' compensation benefits, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The court found that Diego E. Lagos, who injured his hand while working as a carpenter for Design Kitchen and Baths of Montgomery County in 2001, could receive workers' compensation benefits despite his status as an undocumented worker.
Not covering undocumented workers under the law "would retard the goals of workers' compensation laws and leave these individuals with only two options, receive no relief for work-related injuries or sue in tort," according to the opinion authored by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.
"Moreover, without the protection of the statute, unscrupulous employers could, and perhaps would, take advantage of this class of persons and engage in unsafe practices with no fear of retribution, secure in the knowledge that society would have to bear the cost of caring for these injured workers."
The justices voted 6 to 1 in favor of the decision.
Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. dissented, stating in his opinion that the law refers only to minors when it says that workers "whether lawfully or unlawfully employed" are covered by workers' compensation benefits.
Several states across the country have issued similar rulings in favor of workers, said Lagos' attorney, Del. Luiz S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat.
The attorney for Design Kitchen and Baths could not be reached for comment.
Lagos, who is from Argentina, injured his left hand cutting wood on the job on Aug. 20, 2001.
The injury required him to have two surgeries and left him "temporarily totally disabled" from May 14, 2002, to June 17, according to court documents.
But Simmons said that "many of the undocumented folks are the ones losing their limbs, losing their eyes. ... When there is a trench that collapses, invariably you are going to find someone at the bottom of the pile who does not have a green card."
Undocumented workers are often exposed in the highest-risk jobs, Simmons said, adding that the ruling will benefit those workers, too.
The case of Design Kitchen and Baths v. Lagos began in 2001 at the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission, which ruled that Lagos was eligible to receive workers' compensation benefits.
The Circuit Court for Montgomery County later affirmed that ruling, according to court documents.
The case then went to the Maryland Court of Appeals and has been pending since February 2004, Simmons said.