When you are injured on the job, you likely will be able to recover any sort of compensation from your employer only through workers’ compensation law. Employees in all fifty states and federal employees are covered under either federal workers’ compensation laws or state workers’ compensation laws. This means that you cannot file a regular lawsuit for damages related to a workplace injury or illness (with narrow exceptions described below). In legal terms, filing a workers’ compensation claim is your "exclusive remedy" for a work-related accident, cumulative trauma injury, or occupational disease.
There are benefits to filing a workers’ compensation claim instead of a lawsuit. Rather than having the unpredictability of a lengthy lawsuit, workers’ compensation allows you to begin receiving monetary and medical benefits immediately, as long as you are eligible for those benefits. Your employer will begin payment of almost all claim-related medical care. You may also receive compensation for lost wages and permanent disability benefits if you are unable to work as a result of your injury or illness.
The drawback to a workers’ compensation claim as opposed to a regular civil lawsuit is that, in a workers’ compensation claim, you cannot recover punitive damages. Your benefits will be limited to those allowed by the workers’ compensation laws in your state, and are usually tied to a percentage of your wages.
There are some limited circumstances which allow you to file a lawsuit against your employer in civil court.
You are entitled to file a lawsuit if:
It is important to note that if your workers’ compensation claim is denied, you still may not file a lawsuit against your employer. Instead, you can file an appeal with the administrative agency in your state that governs workers’ compensation appeals, usually the workers' comp appeals board.
If you are eligible to file a lawsuit against your employer in civil court, you won't be limited to the amounts provided by workers’ compensation benefits. In addition to lost wages, reimbursement for medical treatment, and compensation for any permanent impairment, you may be able to sue for pain and suffering and punitive damages. Punitive damages can be a sum of money many times the amount of actual damages you incurred, especially in the case of egregiously bad behavior on your employer’s part.
You will need to file specific documents to begin the lawsuit. You file the personal injury lawsuits in the state where you live, where your employer is located, or where the injury occurred. If these states are not all the same, you should talk to an attorney to ensure that you file your lawsuit in the correct jurisdiction. Filing a personal injury lawsuit against your employer is fairly complex; few people attempt it on their own.
If you are eligible to file a civil lawsuit, call or email a local workers' comp or personal injury attorney for a consultation as soon as possible about your rights and whether to file a lawsuit. Statute of limitation deadlines for filing personal injury lawsuits can be short, sometimes as little as one year. The extra damages that a lawyer will help you get for pain and suffering or punitive damages often more than pay for the lawyer's fee.
First, be prepared to show the judge that you are eligible to sue your employer (this means proving that your employer intentionally hurt you, or that your employer has insufficient workers’ compensation insurance).
Proving intent can be difficult, especially because the employer will likely have an experienced attorney to argue that the employer did not act intentionally, and that your case should be handled as a workers’ compensation claim.
To establish your personal injury claim, you must be also prepared to prove that you sustained an injury or illness related to your employment. You will need to show, with legally acceptable evidence, that your employer did something wrong to cause your injury. This is different from a standard workers’ compensation case, in which you only have to show that the injury or illness arose at work, or in the course and scope of your employment.
You'll also need must show the court what damages you incurred, including medical bills, lost wages, and compensation permanent physical or mental impairment.
For more information on suing your employer, see Nolo's article on When You Can Sue Outside of Workers' Compensation.