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

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.