Injury Liability for Workplace Accidents

If you suffer an injury at work, you'll probably turn to a workers' compensation insurer to recoup your losses.

By , Attorney · Pepperdine Caruso School of Law
Updated by David Goguen, J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you get hurt on the job, it's important to understand your legal options. In most (but not all) situations, a workers' compensation claim may be the only way you can get payment for a work-related injury. In this article, you'll learn the basics of workers' compensation, who may be liable for on-the-job injuries, and more.

Workers' Compensation as "Exclusive Remedy"

You typically can't file a civil lawsuit against your employer for work-related injuries or illness. Instead, you usually must file a claim through your state's administrative workers' compensation agency. (Understand the differences between a lawsuit for injury and a workers' compensation claim.)

The workers' compensation system is something of a tradeoff: in exchange for forfeiting their right to sue their employer for work-related injuries, employees can receive benefits for work-related injuries no matter who was at fault for their injuries. This is known as the "compensation bargain." Most employers are required to pay into the workers' compensation system by purchasing insurance for their employees. Learn more about how much workers' compensation benefits pay.

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 workplace sexual harassment claims aren't subject to the exclusive remedy provision of workers' compensation plans. Other states have held otherwise, so be sure to understand where your state comes down on this issue.
  • Wrongful termination claims. Some states require that emotional distress claims resulting from wrongful termination—either as a result of a breach of an employment contract or as a result of a wrongful termination—aren't subject to the exclusivity provision of workers' compensation statutes. Again though, 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.
  • Maritime industry workers. Special federal rules (and not state workers' compensation laws) apply to almost anyone who's injured while working on or around boats and other watercraft. Crew members on board most kinds of vessels—and anyone else who might be considered a "seaman"—can usually file a lawsuit against their employer for on-the-job injuries, under a law called the Jones Act. Dock and shipyard workers (and others who qualify) can file a claim for on-the-job injury under the Longshore & Harbor Workers' Compensation Act.

Who Is Liable for Workplace Injuries?

Since workers' compensation is usually the exclusive remedy for an injured employee, negligence on the part of the employee (shared fault for causing the injury) doesn't usually affect the employee's right to benefits. For example, if the employee handles a machine improperly and is injured as a result, the employee's own negligence won't reduce the employee's workers' comp benefits.

There are some exceptions to this general rule. Some states won't allow an injured employee to receive 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 injury (physical or mental), then you might still be able to receive benefits.

Intoxication. Intoxication (such as being under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the injury) may result in reduced benefits, or may completely bar recover of benefits. Once an employer proves that an employer was intoxicated at the time of the injury, the burden usually shifts to the employer to prove that the intoxication didn't contribute to the accident.

Violating an express company safety policy. If you're injured as a result of violating an express company safety policy, you may have your benefits reduced or denied altogether. For example, if your employee handbook requires you to wear a safety helmet, you failed to do so, and use of the helmet would have prevented your injury, your benefits may be reduced.

Learn more about when your workers' compensation claim may be denied.

Who Is Covered Under Workers' Compensation?

Typically, an employer is only required to purchase workers' compensation insurance for its employees. So, independent contractors aren't covered, since they're not employees.

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. Learn more about eligibility for workers' compensations benefits.

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