Difference Between a Personal Injury and Workers' Compensation Claim

The main differences between a workers' comp claim and a personal injury lawsuit are the fault requirements and types of compensation available.

What is the difference between a workers’ compensation case and a personal injury claim or lawsuit?

The biggest and most important difference is that a personal injury claim is based on fault and a workers’ compensation case is not. In order to recover damages against someone for a car accident, a slip and fall, or indeed any type of negligence claim, the other person must be negligent, meaning that he/she must have done something wrong.

Fault Needed in a Personal Injury Case

A slip and fall case is a good example of fault in a personal injury case. Simply because you slipped and fell on someone else’s property does not mean that the person who owns the property (or anyone else for that matter) was negligent. Accidents, where no one is at fault, do happen. In order to recover damages for slipping on someone else’s property, you and your lawyer must prove that that other person negligently maintained his/her property -- i.e., that he/she did something wrong. Similarly, if you are in a car accident, you can only recover damages from the other driver if the other driver was at fault.

No Fault Needed in a Workers’ Compensation Case

In a workers’ compensation case, any employee injured on the job is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, with some very limited exceptions. Workers’ compensation has nothing to do with fault. You do not need to prove that your employer or your co-workers did anything wrong in order for you to receive workers’ compensation benefits. Even if you were negligent, and your negligence caused your injury, you are still entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits.

Different Damages

The biggest difference in damages between a personal injury claim or lawsuit and a workers’ compensation case is that you are not entitled to  benefits for pain and suffering  in a workers’ compensation case. In a personal injury claim or lawsuit, you are entitled to recover all of the damages that you have suffered. This includes lost earnings, lost earning capacity, medical bills, future medical expenses, permanent impairment, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life (i.e., hedonic damages), among other things.

But in a workers’ compensation case, you can only receive weekly compensation, permanent impairment benefits, medical bills, and vocational rehabilitation. For more detail, see How Much in Workers' Compensation Benefits Will You Get?

You cannot receive benefits for pain and suffering in a workers’ compensation case. This is because the concept of workers’ compensation is basically a tradeoff between labor and business owners. Before states enacted workers’ compensation laws around the turn of the twentieth century, the only remedy that injured workers had against their employers was to sue them for negligence. If the employer was not negligent, or if the employee did not sue or bring a claim against the employer, the employee got nothing.

You Cannot Sue Your Employer or Your Co-Workers

The workers’ compensation laws ensured that all workers who were injured on the job would get some weekly benefits and would get their medical bills paid. In return, injured workers lost the right to sue their employers and co-workers for negligence and lost the right to collect damages for pain and suffering.

Are There Any Workers Who Are Still Legally Permitted To Sue Their Employers?

Yes, two small classes of employees do not fall under any workers’ compensation laws: crewmembers of vessels and interstate railroad workers.

If you are a crewmember of any type of boat, from a cruise ship down to the smallest two person commercial fishing boat, you are not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Instead, a federal law known as the Jones Act authorizes you to sue your employer for damages, including pain and suffering, if you get hurt on the job. If you are a member of a crew of a vessel and get hurt in the course of your employment, you should contact a lawyer who specializes in Jones Act cases.

Interstate railroad workers, are authorized by a different federal law called the  Federal Employers Liability Act  (FELA) to sue their employer for damages if they get injured while on the job. Interstate railroad workers are usually workers who work for a railroad that operates in more than one state. Commuter rail workers do not always fall under the FELA. If you work on a railroad and get injured on the job, you should contact a FELA lawyer for more information about this law.

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