Workers Compensation

Can I Sue My Employer in Court for a Work-Related Injury?

By Sachi Barreiro, Attorney, University of San Francisco School of Law
Injured workers may sue their employers in court under limited circumstances.

Question

I’m a construction worker, and I recently suffered some pretty serious injuries at the job site. I was working on scaffolding, when the plank underneath me gave way. I fell several feet and hurt my back, leg, and arm. My doctor says that my recovery will be slow, and that it’s not clear whether I’ll make a full recovery. I’ve notified my boss about my injury, and he said that my only option is to file a workers’ compensation claim. Is this true? Or can I sue my employer in court?

Answer

In most cases, you may not sue your employer in court for an injury you sustained on the job. The workers’ compensation system is designed to replace the court system; that’s why workers’ comp is sometimes referred to as the “exclusive remedy” for injured workers against their employers. Workers’ comp has its advantages for workers. A worker can receive benefits relative quickly, without needing to prove that the employer did anything to cause the injury.

Workers’ comp also has its downsides, though. The main disadvantage is that workers are limited in the amount of compensation that they can receive. For example, you can receive only a portion of your lost wages, usually around two-thirds of your regular earnings. And, unlike a lawsuit, you can’t recover compensation for “pain and suffering”—the emotional upset, physical discomfort, and inconvenience you suffered as a result of the injuries.

As with any rule, there are some limited exceptions that would allow an injured worker to sue an employer in court. You can typically sue in court if your employer does not have workers’ compensation insurance. You can also usually sue if your employer intentionally caused your injury or acted in a way that was almost certain to result in injury (such as removing a safety device from a machine or instructing workers not to wear safety gear). Depending on your state, other exceptions might apply; for more information, see Injured at Work: Do I File a Workers' Comp Claim or a Lawsuit?

The workers’ compensation exclusivity rule applies only to claims against your employer. If a third party might be responsible for your injuries, you can sue that party in court. Third party claims are common when workplace injuries involve car accidents, defective products, or toxic chemicals or other substances. If you are successful in a lawsuit, you can recover the full value of your lost wages and pain and suffering.

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