If you've suffered a workplace injury and are wondering whether to hire a workers' compensation attorney, the answer depends on the severity of your injury and the overall complexity of your case.
When You Can Represent Yourself
As a general rule, you may be able to get by without an attorney if all of the following statements are true:
- You suffered a minor workplace injury, such as a twisted ankle or a cut requiring a few stitches.
- You missed little or no work due to your injury.
- Your employer admits that the injury happened at work.
- You don't have a pre-existing condition.
Even in these relatively uncomplicated situations, it's often a good idea to contact a workers' compensation attorney for a free consultation about your case. The attorney can walk you through the process, alert you to potential pitfalls, and give you an honest appraisal of whether you can handle the case on your own.
When to Hire a Lawyer
The moment any complexity is introduced into your case is the moment you should hire an attorney. For example, in any of these situations, you should contact a lawyer.
- Your employer denies your claim or you fail to receive your benefits promptly. Employers and workers' comp insurers routinely reject bona fide workers' comp claims, confident that many workers will fail to appeal. Unfortunately, they're usually correct. Up to 80% of individuals who are hurt at work simply accept the denial of their claim without appealing. Hiring a workers' comp attorney costs nothing up front, and gives you the best chance to receive a fair settlement for your injuries.
- Your employer's settlement offer doesn't cover all your lost wages or medical bills. If you're not sure your settlement offer is good enough, don't rely on the workers' compensation judge to make sure that you're getting a fair deal. Although workers' comp settlements must have judicial approval, judges will usually sign off on any agreement as long as it's not grossly unfair. If you really want someone to get you the best settlement possible, call an attorney.
- Your medical issues prevent you from returning to your prior job, or from performing any work at all. If you've suffered permanent partial disability or permanent total disability, you may be entitled to lifetime weekly payments (or a single lump sum) to make up for your lost wages. These types of case can be monumentally expensive for insurance companies, and they'll often stop at nothing to avoid paying you what you deserve. A knowledgeable workers' comp attorney is essential in cases involving permanent injuries or illness.
- You receive Social Security disability benefits. If your workers' comp settlement isn't structured properly, Social Security may be entitled to a large portion of your benefits. An experienced attorney will understand how to draft your settlement agreement to minimize or eliminate this offset.
- Your boss retaliates against you for filing a workers' comp claim. If your boss has fired you, demoted you, slashed your hours, reduced your pay, or engaged in any other form of discrimination because you filed a workers' comp claim, contact a workers' comp attorney immediately.
- You have a potential third-party claim.Although the workers' comp system was designed to keep work injury cases from the civil tort system, you are permitted to sue a third party whose negligence contributed to your injury. For example, a delivery driver who is struck by a negligent motorist can file a civil suit against the motorist in addition to receiving workers' comp benefits. Civil damages often exceed workers' comp settlements because they account for non-economic harms such as pain and suffering. Read more about third-party lawsuits in Nolo's article on when you can sue outside workers' comp.
What Your Attorney Will Do for You
In addition to making sure that you file necessary forms and meet all deadlines, your attorney will understand how to develop medical evidence that documents the severity of your condition. Relying on the supposedly "independent" physicians who perform exams for insurance companies is a common but costly error committed by unrepresented claimants. Moreover, a workers' comp attorney can estimate the "worth" of your case and evaluate any settlement offers much more accurately than your co-workers, friends, or family members can.
Tilting the Scales in Your Favor
The workers' compensation system may have been intended to provide prompt and fair compensation for injured workers, but it now appears to work mostly to the benefit of employers and insurers. Plus, insurance companies have teams of highly trained lawyers on their side. Hiring a seasoned workers' comp attorney will go a long way toward tilting the scales in your favor. If you're in any doubt about your ability to handle your WC claim yourself, don't hesitate to call a workers' comp attorney for a free consultation.