Can I sue my employer for negligence or reckless behavior that injured me? What about workers comp?

UPDATED: Jul 12, 2023Fact Checked

Get Legal Help Today

Find the right lawyer for your legal issue.

secured lock Secured with SHA-256 Encryption

Jeffrey Johnson

Insurance Lawyer

Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

Insurance Lawyer

Mary Martin

Published Legal Expert

Mary Martin has been a legal writer and editor for over 20 years, responsible for ensuring that content is straightforward, correct, and helpful for the consumer. In addition, she worked on writing monthly newsletter columns for media, lawyers, and consumers. Ms. Martin also has experience with internal staff and HR operations. Mary was employed for almost 30 years by the nationwide legal publi...

Published Legal Expert

UPDATED: Jul 12, 2023

Advertiser Disclosure

It’s all about you. We want to help you make the right legal decisions.

We strive to help you make confident insurance and legal decisions. Finding trusted and reliable insurance quotes and legal advice should be easy. This doesn’t influence our content. Our opinions are our own.

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about legal topics and insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything legal and insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by experts.

UPDATED: Jul 12, 2023Fact Checked

Unless your employer did something to harm you on purpose, you generally are not going to be able to sue him for negligence—even if he was egregiously careless and reckless.

This is because a majority of states in the United States have established a different system, called workers compensation, which is an “exclusive remedy” to compensate employees who are injured on the job. “Exclusive remedy” means only remedy. Under the workers’ compensation system, while employers do have responsibility to their employees for work-related injury, that responsibility is fulfilled by workers compensation—the injured worker is paid by workers compensation. Because the employee gets his or her compensation through workers compensation, lawsuits aren’t permitted. The government’s rationale is fairly simple: it is best for workers and society as a whole if injured workers receive compensation without the time, expense, and effort of lawsuits.

Workers Compensation system

Workers compensation is insurance paid by employers for benefits and related medical costs for employees who suffer a work-related injury, regardless of blame. It is a safety-net for workers to get medical benefits for on-the-job accidents.

Having a system of worker’s compensation is important for a number of reasons. Injured employees are not forced to sue their employer every time they are hurt on the job. If an employee had to sue, the employee would have to prove that the employer had done (a) something negligent (careless) and (b) the employer’s negligence directly led to the employee’s injury. Since the person suing has the burden of proof to establish his or her case by a “preponderance of the evidence” (that it is more likely than not that it happened the way the plaintiff, or person suing, says it did), you risk losing if you are unable to prove your case. You would also have to either spend money on a lawyer, or else be willing to be your own attorney (“pro se”). And the matter would likely take months, or even sometimes years to resolve, given how long litigation can drag on.

Workers compensation avoids those issues. Because negligence isn’t relevant, the employee does not need to prove anything to receive compensation. In fact, in many cases, even if the employee was also somewhat negligent or at fault (for example, tripped and fell), he or she could receive compensation. Whereas in a lawsuit, the injured party’s own negligence can reduce what he or she collects, or even potentially bar recovery entirely.

This said, because employees have to follow their employer’s rules and instructions, an employee might be unable to receive workers compensation if behavior resulting in injury was a violation of the company’s rule. An injury resulting from doing something you should not have been doing in any event may be one for which you cannot receive compensation. For example, say that you are a warehouse worker, and your employer says that all such workers have to wear steel-toed boots due to the chance of something heavy falling on their feet. If you come to work wearing those comfortable but entirely non-protective sandals and a heavy crate smashes your toes, you will not be eligible for worker’s compensation.

Reporting responsibility: To collect under workers compensation, the employee needs to notify the employer as soon as possible after the work-related injury happens. Each state has a different timeframe or deadline for notification. The employee needs to be sure to follow his or her state’s rules.

Proof of injury: The employee also needs to demonstrate that the injury arose as a direct result of doing the employee’s job. In other words, the employee must show that the injury is actually work-related. Assuming the employee can demonstrate that, the workers compensation claim should be approved by the insurer and the employee should start receiving benefits, including payment of all medical bills for the work-related injury, as well as lost wages and disability or death benefits. Compared to litigation, worker’s compensation is a streamlined, lost-cost system.

No worker’s compensation insurance?

What if you work for an employer which—despite their legal obligations—failed to maintain worker’s compensation insurance? Or which opted out (an option in some states) from worker’s compensation coverage? Or if you are not the kind of worker which, in your state, is covered by worker’s compensation? In all those cases, you can sue the employer. Employers only receive the worker’s compensation system’s protection from lawsuits IF they provide worker’s compensation.

Are All Injuries Covered by Worker’s Compensation?

You can also sue if the employer deliberately or intentionally did something resulting in your injury. Worker’s compensation protects the employer from lawsuits resulting from carelessness or accidents, but not due to deliberate wrongful acts. For example, if an employer intentionally “cut corners” to save money by not providing protective gear for workers exposed to asbestos—even though it knows of the risk—that would be the basis for a (rather large) lawsuit.

Conversely, if the worker caused the injury, he or she is not covered by worker’s compensation. Like most forms of insurance, you can’t cause the injury and still receive compensation for it.

However, the good news for many employees is that repetitive-stress or repetitive-motion injuries are covered. It doesn’t have to be an “acute” injury caused by a single incident or accident to receive worker’s compensation. If the injury is the result of the job, you can receive worker’s compensation benefits. Carpal tunnel syndrome, back or knee injuries from overuse over time—these and similar injuries are covered.

Third Party Injuries

In addition, worker’s compensation only applies to the employer—it doesn’t protect other persons. If some vendor or supplier or independent contractor working with your employer injured you, you can sue them. You could also sue a customer, client, or even someone wholly unconnected with your employer who caused your injury at or during the course of work. For example, say that you work in a big box retail store and are helping a customer load his or her car with the purchases when another customer runs into you in the parking lot—that’s a case for the courts (a lawsuit), not worker’s compensation.

Worker’s compensation is the exclusive remedy against your employer for non-intentional injuries, but does not apply to any other context. If your work injuries were in part caused by another responsible individual or company, you will need to hire an attorney to give you an idea of your rights.

Death Benefits for Survivors?

In many states, if a worker dies due to work-related injuries, certain surviving family members—those who depended on the worker for support—can receive benefits, too. The key is, the death must be the result of the workplace or work-related injury. If the employee died due to unrelated reasons, the survivors do not receive any compensation. The law in this regard varies state by state, such as in terms of who is eligible to receive benefits, or how much they get; you have to consult your state’s laws to know your rights.

When to seek outside help?

If you believe that your employer is in some way violating the law (for example, it fails to maintain coverage, your injury is serious, or there has been a delay in getting benefits), you should consult with a worker’s compensation lawyer to evaluate how to pursue your legal rights more effectively.

Case Studies: Workers Compensation and Workplace Injuries

Case Study 1: Mary’s Slip and Fall Accident at Work

Mary, an office employee, slipped and fell in the hallway at her workplace due to a wet floor that was not properly marked. As a result of the fall, Mary suffered a serious back injury and required medical treatment. Since her employer had workers compensation insurance, Mary was able to file a claim and receive benefits to cover her medical expenses and lost wages.

Case Study 2: John’s Repetitive Motion Injury

John worked as a data entry clerk and developed carpal tunnel syndrome due to repetitive typing. He experienced pain and numbness in his hands, making it difficult for him to perform his job. John filed a workers compensation claim and was able to receive medical treatment for his condition, as well as temporary disability benefits while he was unable to work.

Case Study 3: Sarah’s Construction Site Accident

Sarah, a construction worker, was injured when she fell from a scaffold that was not properly secured. She suffered multiple fractures and required surgery and rehabilitation. In this case, Sarah was covered by workers compensation, which provided her with the necessary medical care and compensation for her lost wages during her recovery.

Case Study 4: David’s Third-Party Liability

David, a delivery driver, was involved in a car accident caused by another driver’s negligence. He sustained severe injuries and was unable to work for an extended period. Although David received workers compensation benefits, he also had the option to file a personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault driver to seek additional compensation for his pain and suffering.

Get Legal Help Today

Find the right lawyer for your legal issue.

secured lock Secured with SHA-256 Encryption

Jeffrey Johnson

Insurance Lawyer

Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

Insurance Lawyer

Mary Martin

Published Legal Expert

Mary Martin has been a legal writer and editor for over 20 years, responsible for ensuring that content is straightforward, correct, and helpful for the consumer. In addition, she worked on writing monthly newsletter columns for media, lawyers, and consumers. Ms. Martin also has experience with internal staff and HR operations. Mary was employed for almost 30 years by the nationwide legal publi...

Published Legal Expert

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about legal topics and insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything legal and insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by experts.

Get Legal Help Today

Find the right lawyer for your legal issue.

secured lock Secured with SHA-256 Encryption