With work-life boundaries continuing to evaporate, it's important to understand your legal rights (and your options) if you're injured in a car accident while traveling for work, or while engaging in some other work-related activity. In this article, we'll focus on the legal intersection between workers' compensation claims and car accidents.
The rules for workers' compensation claims differ from state to state. However, all states require that an injury be "work-related" (or otherwise tied to a job-related purpose) in order for an employee to receive workers' compensation benefits.
Generally, if you are injured at your place of work, your injury will be considered work-related (although there are exceptions to that rule). If you are in a car accident while driving or riding in a car for work-related reasons away from your workplace, you may also be covered by workers' compensation -- for example, if:
Generally speaking, you are not able to collect workers' compensation benefits for a car accident that occurred while you were simply commuting to or from work. However, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, if you stopped while on the way to work to pick up supplies for the office, and then were involved in a car accident, you may be eligible for workers' compensation benefits.
In addition to potential eligibility for workers' compensation benefits, if another driver caused your car accident, you may have the right to bring a personal injury claim against that driver, and get compensation for your medical bills and other losses stemming from your car accident injuries. That could mean filing a third-party insurance claim directly with the at-fault driver's insurance carrier, or filing a personal injury lawsuit. There are big differences between a personal injury claim and a workers' compensation claim.
First, a covered employee files a workers' compensation claim according to the procedures laid out under state law. Usually that means the employer files initial paperwork with the state agency, or the employee starts a claim with the state's workers compensation agency or appeals board. A personal injury lawsuit, on the other hand, is filed in the local branch of the state's civil court system.
Perhaps the most significant difference between a workers' compensation claim and a personal injury claim is the variety of damages that can be recovered. In a workers' compensation claim, you generally receive payments only for certain quantifiable losses (medical bills and lost income), usually up to certain maximums. You will not receive payment for pain and suffering in a workers' compensation claim, but those kinds of damages are always available in a personal injury lawsuit.
Another important difference between a workers' compensation claim and a personal injury claim is "fault." When you bring a personal injury claim against the other driver, you must prove that the other driver caused the car accident. In a workers' compensation claim, you do not need to prove anyone else caused the crash. You may usually even collect workers' compensation benefits even if the car accident was your fault, as long as you were driving for a work-related purpose, and you weren't under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Another big difference has to do with timing. Typically, if you are injured on the job, you must notify your employer "immediately," or at least within a certain number of days (30, 90, etc., depending on the state). You typically have a much larger window within which to file an actual workers' comp claim (usually one to three years). With a personal injury lawsuit, the only time limit comes from the statute of limitations filing deadline, which varies from state to state, but is never shorter than one year from the date of the underlying accident, and is usually two or three years.
Finally, where a car accident forms the basis for a claim, workers' compensation benefits do not include compensation for vehicle damage, but personal injury compensation does.
The manner in which the workers' compensation system interacts with a personal injury claim can be very confusing. You do not typically have to choose between filing a workers' compensation claim and filing a personal injury claim. Even if you accept workers' compensation benefits from your employer, you still have the right to seek damages from the driver who caused the car accident.
However, if you receive workers' compensation benefits, your employer or its insurance company may have a "lien" against any compensation you receive from any third party. For example, if you receive $10,000 in workers' compensation benefits from your employer, and you later reach a car accident settlement agreement for $20,000 against the other driver, your employer may have a $10,000 lien on your settlement.