Injured at Work: When You Can Sue Your Employer

Most claims for work-related injuries have to go through the workers' compensation system. Understand when you can file a lawsuit in court against your employer after a workplace injury.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

When you are injured on the job, you likely will be able to recover compensation from your employer only through workers' compensation law.

Employees in all fifty states and federal employees are covered under either state or federal 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.

When You Can File a Lawsuit Against Your Employer for a Workplace Injury

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:

  • Your employer intentionally hurt you. To be able to sue your employer for intentional harm, your employer must have taken some action with the specific and direct intent of harming you. For example, an intentional harm could be your boss punching you in the face. This means intentional acts only, not your employer's negligence at failing to protect your health and safety. Carelessness, even in the most extreme forms, is still insufficient to amount to an intentional harm in this case.
  • Your employer has insufficient workers' compensation insurance, or no workers' compensation insurance. Texas is the only state that allows employers to not have any form of workers' compensation insurance. Employers in other states may have insufficient workers' compensation insurance or no insurance because they have broke the law. In most states, you can file a lawsuit against your employer to recover damages from your work-related injury or occupational disease.
  • You were injured by a third party. Whether your injury occurred due to the actions of a customer, a visitor, a passerby, or someone else, you might be able to sue your employer or the third party in court for damages related to your injury.

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.

How to Sue Your Employer Outside of the Workers' Comp System

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.

Damages Available From a Lawsuit

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.

How to Prove a Case Against Your Employer

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 When You Can Sue Outside of Workers' Compensation.

Workers' Comp Claim vs. Lawsuit: Pros and Cons

There are benefits to filing a workers' compensation claim instead of a lawsuit, including the following:

  • Workers' compensation allows you to begin receiving monetary and medical benefits immediately, as long as you are eligible for those benefits.
  • Your employer will pay for almost all claim-related medical care.
  • You may 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.

Why You Should Talk to a Workers' Comp or Personal Injury Lawyer

If you've been injured at work and want to sue your employer outside of the workers' comp system, you'll need an experienced lawyer on your side. A workers' comp or personal injury lawyer (many law firms can handle both sorts of claims) will be able to advise you on whether your claim is likely to succeed outside of the workers' comp system. A lawyer can also give you an estimate of the possible compensation you might be entitled to in each system.

Talk to a Lawyer

Need professional help? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Make the Most of Your Claim

Get the compensation you deserve.

We've helped 265 clients find attorneys today.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you