By YANCEY ROY
Gannett News Service.
(Original Publication: February 21, 2006)
ALBANY -- An illegal immigrant hurt on the job is entitled to sue his employer for lost earnings, pain and suffering, and medical expenses, New York's highest court ruled Tuesday.
Labor rights and protections are not based an a worker's immigration status, the Court of Appeals said in a 5-2 decision. To see it otherwise would be to encourage unscrupulous employers to flout immigration laws and hire illegal immigrants, the court said.
The ruling is expected to have a broad impact on the thousands of ``undocumented workers'' in the state.
At issue were injury claims by two construction workers hurt on the job. Gorgonio Balbuena, an undocumented worker from Mexico, landed a job with Taman Management Corp. in 1999. In 2000, he fell from a ramp while pushing a wheelbarrow at Manhattan construction site owned by IDR Realty, according to court documents. Bulbuena sued for lost future earnings, pain and suffering, and medical expenses, claiming the accident left him incapacitated.
The other case centered on Stanislaw Majlinger, who came to the United States in 2000 from Poland on a travel visa and remained after his visa expired. According to court records, Majlinger said he was standing on a scaffold installing siding on a Staten Island building in January 2001 when the scaffold collapsed, dropping him 15 feet to the ground and causing serious injuries.
In both cases, the central issue was whether an undocumented worker injured on the job is blocked from recovering lost wages because of his immigration status. The employers argued that federal immigration laws effectively blocked such lawsuits. The New York court said no.
``The Labor Law ... applies to all workers in qualifying employment situations -- regardless of immigration status -- and nothing in the relevant statutes or our decisions negates the universal applicability of this principle,'' Judge Victoria Graffeo wrote for the majority.
Further, the opposite conclusion could egg on employers to skirt immigration laws and hire illegal workers, safely knowing they'd never have to pay out much to cover workplace injuries, she added.
``... a different conclusion would not only diminish the protections afforded by the labor law, it would also improvidently reward employers who knowingly disregard the employment verification system in defiance of the primary purposes of federal immigration laws,'' Graffeo said. ``An absolute (ban on) recovery of lost wages by an undocumented worker would lessen the unscrupulous employer's potential liability to its alien workers and make it more financially attractive to hire undocumented aliens.''
The office of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer had made the same argument, filing a brief on behalf of Bulbuena and Majlinger.
In dissent, Judge Robert S. Smith said the state is rewarding Bulbuena and Majlinger the benefit of an illegal bargain. The real loss suffered by the two is that their injuries prevent them from working in the United States -- ``exactly the result that (the federal immigration law) was intended to accomplish,'' Smith wrote. The award of back pay undermines the law, he said.
The cases now return to a trial court to determine liability and damages.