Workplace Injury: When You Can Sue Outside of Workers' Compensation

Workers' compensation insurance may not be your only recourse for a workplace injury.

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If you've been injured in the workplace, you've probably been told that the only compensation you can receive will come from your employer's workers' compensation insurance. Although this is the general rule, there are many exceptions -- situations in which you may be able to sue for damages caused by your injuries. For example:

  • If you were injured by a defective product, you might be able to bring a products liability action against the manufacturer of the product.
  • If you were injured by a toxic substance, you might be able to bring a toxic tort lawsuit against the manufacturer of that substance.
  • If you were injured because of your employer's intentional or egregious conduct, you might be able to bring a personal injury lawsuit against your employer.
  • If your employer does not carry workers' compensation insurance, you might be able to sue your employer in civil court or collect money from a state fund.
  • If a third party caused your injury, you might be able to bring a personal injury lawsuit against that person.

Although workers' compensation can provide money and benefits to an injured worker, temporary disability and permanent disability payments are usually quite low and don't compensate the worker for things like pain and suffering. Workers' compensation also does not provide punitive damages to punish an employer for poor safety controls or dangerous conditions. That's why it's important for injured workers to understand their rights to bring a case outside of the workers' compensation system.

In addition to the lawsuits described in this article, you might obtain additional money from government benefits such as Social Security disability insurance (SSDI or SSI) if your injury is disabling and prevents you from working. For more information, see Nolo's article on Social Security Disability Benefits.

If You Were Injured by a Defective Product

When a worker is injured by a machine or piece of equipment that is defective, failed to work properly, or is inherently dangerous, the manufacturer of the machine or equipment can be held responsible for the injury if it knew of the danger and/or didn't properly warn the business or employees of the danger. In such a situation, the manufacturer would have to compensate the worker for things like medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Example:

Bill works in a factory that produces office products. His job is to operate a punch press that punches holes in boxes. One day, when Bill puts his hand into the press to adjust a box, the foot pedal that he uses to stop the press sticks, and the press crushes three of his fingers. His fingers are no longer usable after the accident. Bill can collect workers' compensation from his employer, and he also has a possible products liability case against the manufacturer of the defective press.

If you have been injured by an unsafe machine or other equipment in your workplace, consider talking to an attorney about your rights. You can also file a complaint with the Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration if there have been unsafe conditions (for more information, see Nolo's article OSHA: Complying With Workplace Health and Safety Laws), in addition to filing a workers' compensation claim. This is a particularly important step to take if your employer is still requiring you or other employees to use the equipment.

If You Were Injured by a Toxic Substance

Sometimes the chemicals and other substances that workers use are toxic and cause severe injuries and illnesses. These substances can include such things as asbestos, benzene, chromium compounds, silica, and radium, but any substance that harms you could possibly be the subject of a lawsuit for a "toxic tort."

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of toxic injuries: acute injuries are apparent immediately, while latent injuries may take years to appear. Examples of acute injuries include chemical burns and poisonings. Examples of latent injuries include cancers and lung diseases. Because of the time delay, latent injuries tend to be more difficult to prove than acute ones, but these cases are not impossible. Workers have been successful in lawsuits brought years after their exposure to the toxic substance. (In particular, workers who suffer from asbestosis or mesothelioma almost always succeed in lawsuits because the causation between exposure to asbestos and asbestosis and mesothelioma has been proven in many lawsuits. For more information, see Nolo's article Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits: What to Expect.) When a worker is injured by a toxic substance, the worker can usually sue the manufacturer of the toxic substance and any manufacturers of safety equipment that proved to be ineffective in the handling of the toxic substance.

If you have been injured or sickened by a toxic substance, talk to an attorney about your legal rights. Especially if a great deal of time has passed between your exposure and your injury or illness, you will need the assistance of an expert to help you sort out the complicated issues involved. And even if the toxic injury was recent, an attorney can probably get you the best settlement for your injury. To find a personal injury lawyer who handles toxic substances, see Nolo's Lawyer Directory (when you view a personal injury lawyer's profile, click the "Types of Cases" and "Work History" tabs to learn about a particular lawyer's experience, if any, with toxic torts and workplace injuries).

If the toxic substance is continuing to make the workplace unsafe for your or others, consider taking the additional step of filing a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

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