Who pays when an undergraduate is injured in a lab?

When an undergraduate researcher accidentally synthesized a diazonium salt at Texas Tech University in March and got himself an an ambulance trip to the local hospital, the incident raised a new issue for the school, wrote chemistry professor Dominick Casadonte to the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety e-mail list:

The student was wearing his PPE, everything was done with safety in mind. He suffered only superficial lacerations on his hands. The biggest expense for him was the ambulance ride to the emergency room and being treated (no stitches were needed; I think he was given neosporin and sent home after a 2 hour wait).

When he contacted his insurance company, they wanted to know if they were the ones who should have to pay for the ambulance ride, etc. He asked the professor overseeing him (the student was doing undergraduate research for course credit, and according to legal, does not fall under workman’s compensation). Texas Tech is a “self-insured” institution. The department has been instructed not to pay, as it would be an admission of liability, and could open the doors for payouts for any minor freshman chemistry lab accident, for example. The university legal would perhaps need to deal with the person’s insurance company or a lawyer, should the student sue.

My question to all of you: We are researching how other universities deal with the issue of who pays for medical care for minor accidents. What do your universities do? How do you deal with the financial aspects of accidents? Are your institutions insured? If so, for liability only? Liability and damages to infrastructure?

I’ve said this before about workman’s compensation for graduate students and postdocs, but now I’ll apply it to undergraduates as well: Find out what your university’s policies are and what you will have to pay for personally if you’re injured. If expenses are going to come out of your health insurance, assuming that your insurance company doesn’t protest, then what are your deductible and/or copays for ambulances or emergency room visits? Schools have a range of policies, as the responses to Casadonte’s question illustrated.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. I would bet a steak dinner that something like this will eventually be litigated. Chemistry departments are all-but-requiring uncompensated undergraduate research. The student is not an employee, therefore no worker compensation. If students have their parent’s super-high deductible policy, then it will be the student/parent that will pay for what can arguably be, from an outsider looking in a “work-related injury.” What a mess.

  2. Another side to this story is the liability protection available (or not available) to the faculty member(s) involved. Most faculty (including me) believe that our employer will protect us if we get sued. While that may be true, there are likely conditions attached to the protection. It really is essential that all faculty obtain and read the liability protection documents that govern your employment. After doing this, consider talking to the ACS Insurance people. The liability protection plan for faculty is super inexpensive and will provide peace of mind, just as homeowners insurance does. In the liability arena, it is wise to “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst”.

    Please note – I have NO fiduciary relationship to the ACS insurance program.