Injury Liability for Workplace Accidents

If you suffer an injury at work, chances are you would turn to a workers' compensation insurer to recoup your losses.

If you get hurt on the job, it's important to understand your legal options. In most (but not all) cases, workers’ compensation may be your only means of receiving compensation for a work-related injury. Read on to learn more about who may be liable for on-the-job injuries.

Workers’ Compensation as the Exclusive Remedy

Workers’ compensation may be the only means of recovery for work-related injuries or illness. This means that you cannot initiate a civil lawsuit against your employer. Instead, you must file a claim through your state’s administrative workers’ compensation agency.

So, workers’ compensation is a tradeoff: in exchange for the employee forfeiting his or her right to sue the employer for work-related injuries, the employee can receive benefits for work-related injuries without regard to fault. This is known as the “compensation bargain.” Most employers are required to pay into the workers’ compensation system by purchasing insurance for its employees.

Exceptions to the Exclusive Remedy Provision

Not all injuries suffered by an employee are subject to the exclusivity provision of workers’ compensation statutes. Some exceptions include:

  • Sexual harassment claims. Some states hold that sexual harassment claims are not subject to the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation statutes. Other states have held otherwise, so be sure to check the laws of your state.
  • Wrongful termination claims. Some states require that emotional distress claims that result from wrongful termination -- either as a result of breach of an employment contract or as a result of a wrongful termination in violation of public policy -- are not subject to the exclusivity provision of workers’ compensation statutes. Other states hold otherwise.
  • Employment discrimination claims. Most states hold that discrimination claims based upon race, religion, gender, national origin, disability, etc. are not barred by the exclusivity provision of workers’ compensation statutes -- in other words, you can bring these claims outside the umbrella of workers comp.

Who is Liable?

Since workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for an injured employee, contributory negligence on the part of the employee (shared fault for causing the injury) does not affect the employee’s right to benefits. For example, if the employee handles a machine improperly and, as a result, the employee is injured, the employee’s own negligent handling of the machine does not reduce the employee’s workers comp benefits.

Nevertheless, there are some exceptions to this general rule. Some states preclude workers’ compensation benefits in the following circumstances:

Intentional, self-inflicted injury. If you intentionally injure yourself, you may have your benefits reduced or you may be barred from receiving any workers’ compensation benefits. However, if the self-inflicted injury was the result of a work-related stress or injury, then you might still be able to receive benefits. For example, the family of a police officer who committed suicide was not barred from receiving workers’ compensation benefits where it was shown that there was a “chain-of-causation” between the officer’s suicide and traumatic work experience, long hours, and fatigue from being in charge of a town’s rescue efforts during a flood.

Intoxication. Intoxication (such as being under the influence of cocaine or alcohol at the time of the injury) may result in reduced benefits or may be a complete bar on recovering workers’ compensation benefits. Once an employer proves that you were intoxicated at the time of the injury, the burden shifts to you to prove that the intoxication did not contribute to the accident.

Violating an express company safety policy. If you violate an express company safety policy and, as a result, are injured, you may have your benefits reduced or may be barred from receiving benefits. For example, if your employee handbook requires you to wear a safety helmet, you fail to do so, and if the use of the helmet would have prevented the injury, your benefits may be reduced.

If any of these factors contributed to your injury, your claim may be denied.

Who is Covered?

Typically, an employer is only required to purchase workers’ compensation insurance for its employees. So, independent contractors are not covered because they are not employees. However, an injured worker thought to be an independent contractor may have been misclassified.

Whether or not someone is an employee or independent contractor is determined by a judge or referee at the Workers’ Compensation Board, not by the employer and employee. How the parties actually label themselves may be considered, but those classifications don't usually determine the outcome of the case.

See Eligibility for Workers Compensation Benefits for more detail.

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