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

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

Updated by , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law

If you've been injured in the workplace, you may think (maybe you've even been told) that the only payment you can receive will come from your employer's workers' compensation insurance. That's the general rule, but there are several exceptions—situations in which you may be able to go to court and sue for harm ("damages") caused by your injuries, in lieu of or in addition to a workers' comp claim.

When You Can Sue for a Workplace Injury

The most common situations in which it might be possible to sidestep (or supplement) the workers' compensation process and file a lawsuit over a workplace injury include:

  • injuries caused by faulty or defective machinery, tools, equipment, or products
  • illness or injury brought on by exposure to a toxic substance in the workplace
  • on-the-job injuries that resulted from intentional conduct
  • situations in which your employer does not carry workers' compensation insurance, and
  • injuries caused by a third party (like a negligent driver).

Let's take a closer look at some of these situations.

Can You Sue If a Product or Equipment Hurts You at Work?

Some workplace injuries are caused by a product, machine, or piece of equipment that is defective or fails to work properly. In these situations, it's possible that the manufacturer of the product or equipment can be held responsible. For example, if the manufacturer knew of the danger and didn't take proper steps to warn the business or employees, the manufacturer might face a lawsuit in court, which could mean liability for the injured worker's medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

For example, let's say Thea works in a factory that produces office products. Her job is to operate a punch press that punches holes in boxes. One day, when Thea puts her hand into the press to adjust a box, the foot pedal she uses to stop the press sticks, and the press crushes three of her fingers. Thea can collect workers' compensation from her employer, and she also has a possible product liability case against the manufacturer of the defective press.

If you've been injured by an unsafe machine or other equipment in your workplace, consider talking to an attorney about your options. 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 faulty/dangerous equipment.

Can You Sue If You Were Exposed to Toxic Chemicals At Work?

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

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 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 claims because the causation between exposure to asbestos, asbestosis and mesothelioma is well established.

Of course, it's not always clear who is on the legal hook when a worker is injured by a toxic substance on the job. While the worker might be able to sue the manufacturer of the toxic substance, there might be situations in which the employer failed to take proper safety precautions, didn't provide adequate safety equipment, or otherwise fell short in its obligation to protect workers.

What If the Workplace Exposure Happened a Long Time Ago?

If a substantial amount of time passed between your exposure to a toxic substance in the workplace and the onset of your illness, you might want to discuss your situation with a legal professional. Crucial (and complicated) issues related to causation (the link between your exposure and your illness) and your right to sue after the passage of years (set by a law called a statute of limitations) are best handled by an experienced lawyer.

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).

What If a Third Party Injures You While You're On the Job?

Sometimes when an employee is injured on the job, the fault lies not with the employer or with a dangerous substance or machine, but with another person. In such a case, the employee might be able to sue that person for damages.

For example, Diana drives a company car to make sales calls on her clients. While en route to a client's office, she is hit by Joe, who runs a red light. Joe is at fault in the accident and is the cause of Diana's injuries. Diana can bring a lawsuit against Joe for damages (and Joe's car insurance company may pay out a settlement without a lawsuit).

Workers' Comp Claims vs Lawsuits: Pros and Cons

A workers' compensation claim can provide a quicker avenue to money and benefits to an injured worker. But temporary disability and permanent disability payments can be low, and don't compensate the worker for the full spectrum of damages that might be available in a lawsuit, including compensation for the injured person's pain and suffering, and punitive damages that might punish an employer for poor safety controls or dangerous conditions.

In addition to the lawsuit scenarios we've described in this article, you might be able to 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.

Next Steps After a Workplace Injury

If you think the circumstances of your workplace injury might enable you to file a personal injury lawsuit (in lieu of or alongside a workers' compensation claim), it might make sense to discuss your situation with a lawyer. The threshold issues of who might be at fault for a worker's injury—and the right procedural path for the injured worker to take—need to be answered correctly in order to ensure the best outcome. Learn more about getting help from a personal injury lawyer.

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