North America

The Associated Press
9 December 1997

Laws Short-Change Kids Hurt in Illegal Work
by Christopher Sullivan, AP National Writer

Children hurt on the job are probably out of luck if they want to sue their employers for negligence.

"When you send a kid to do something dangerous, you should think, `I may get sued,''' said attorney Mike Krieger. He is representing the parents of 15-year-old Joshua Henderson, who was electrocuted in a Colorado car wash.

Joshua should never have been asked to help remove a shorted-out electric motor at Bear's Car Wash near Denver, said his father, Mark Henderson.

The U.S. Labor Department fined Bear's $81,200 for safety violations; a $49,700 penalty for child labor violations followed. Bear's had no comment on the case.

Under the Colorado workers' compensation law, the Hendersons received $4,000 for burial expenses. Because Joshua had no dependents, a separate $15,000 death payment went to the state, Krieger said.

The attorney has gone to court to argue for the family's right to sue -- challenging provisions of both the state workers' compensation law and federal child labor law.

Judges have ruled that both laws preclude private suits because they provide victims with a different remedy.

Workers' compensation bases payments on future earning potential. Nearly all states preclude additional claims against employers.

Although payments are higher in some states for children injured doing illegal work, critics say they're still too low.

"A 14-year-old hay baler who loses his life in a mechanical accident is compensated as if he were going to be a hay baler all his life,'' said Dorianne Beyer, general counsel for the National Child Labor Committee. ``Is that fair?''

Peter Eide, manager for labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, thinks it is.

Workers' compensation laws guarantee the injured employee will be paid something. But in return, the employee loses his right to sue.

Federal law works in a similar way. It imposes fines and criminal penalties on employers for child labor violations but shields them from being sued in federal court.

Critics say fines are often low and criminal sanctions rare.


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