Third Party Claims for Injuries on the Job

Workers compensation benefits, including medical treatment, temporary total disability payments, and compensation for permanent disability, are usually the only recovery that a person injured at work can obtain under the law. This is called the exclusive remedy provision of the Worker’s Compensation law, and it applies not only to the immediate employer of an injured worker, but also to co-employees and to any general contractor who would be liable for Worker’s Compensation if the injured party’s immediate employer was not insured for Worker’s Compensation.  Worker’s Compensation coverage does not depend upon the employer being negligent, but is provided for on the job injuries regardless of fault.  But, recovery is limited to two-thirds of a workers’ average weekly wage while he is off from work, medical expenses, and compensation for permanent impairment based on a calculation contained in the Workers’ Compensation Act.
There are some situations, however, where an injury on the job can result in other legal causes of action.  The most common example of this is when an employee, while traveling for his work, is injured in a car accident because of the negligence of a third-party.  In this situation the employee has both a Worker’s Compensation claim, which will initially pay his medical bills and two-thirds of his average wage while he is off from work, and a negligence claim against a third-party, which may be liable for pain and suffering, the totality of lost wages, and for medical bills and the permanent loss of ability to earn an income.  There are also more complex workplace accident situations which may give rise to both a Worker’s Compensation claim and a personal injury claim. In a construction site accident, for example, if the negligent party is not an employee of the injured Workers employer, or an “up the ladder” employer or general contractor, the injured party may bring a lawsuit for negligence against the person or company who caused the accident.  Or, if a subcontractor installing new machinery in a factory leaves an opening uncovered on a workplace floor resulting in a fall by an employee working in the plant, the subcontractor may be liable for damages even though the worker is covered by workers’ compensation provided by his employer.  Tools or equipment rented from a third-party supplier may cause injury if the supplier fails to maintain them properly.  If a defectively designed piece of machinery causes injury, the manufacturer of the machine can be held liable to the worker under a products liability cause of action.
A third party negligence claim will have very different rules than a workers’ compensation claim, even though it arises out of the same incident.  The statute of limitations for injury under common law negligence theories of recovery in many cases is only one year, and it is necessary to prove fault on the part of the negligent party.  However, recovery is for the full amount of lost wages, both present and future, medical expenses, and payment for the injured worker’s pain and suffering.   The workers’ compensation insurance carrier will also have a right to recover part of its payments from the negligent third party, and the rules which limit that recovery are complex.  Therefore, it is very important to consult with an attorney about the workplace injury soon after it happens in order to see if there is a third-party action which may be pursued.  This is important to fully investigate and obtain information about the injury, before information is lost or witnesses change jobs and cannot be found.