Workers' compensation is often considered the "exclusive remedy" for job-related injuries because it generally gives employers immunity from lawsuits in exchange for coverage of medical costs, missed work, and other injury-related expenses. The employee is not required to prove fault in order to collect. However, immunity from lawsuits in exchange for workers' comp benefits is not absolute in all jurisdictions or situations.
Since workers' compensation laws vary from state to state, this article will focus on common exceptions to the exclusive remedy doctrine. These include intentional injuries, claims handled in bad faith, and statutory employment violations. For more articles and resources, see FindLaw's Workers' Compensation Basics section, including Can I Sue My Employer Instead?
Dual Capacity of Employer
An employee who is injured by a product that also happens to be manufactured by the employer may sue that employer in states that allow recovery for dual capacity. This means the employer is not only responsible for job-related injuries (through workers' comp), but also liable as the manufacturer of a defective product.
Suppose a factory worker falls and breaks his leg after a tool manufactured at the plant fails to work as intended (and is determined to be the proximate cause of the injury). He may claim workers' compensation for medical costs, lost wages, and other damages. But he also may file suit against his employer for injuries caused by the defective tool.
States that allow recovery on the basis of an employer's dual capacity include California, Illinois, and Michigan.
Lack of Required Insurance
If your employer is required to carry workers' compensation insurance and fails to do so, then you may sue for injuries. The policy must have been active at the time of the injury in order to be in compliance. But keep in mind that not all employers or jurisdictions (such as Texas) require workers' comp coverage.
Intentional Misconduct of Employer
If you sustain work-related injuries from an employer's intentional acts, you may be able to collect additional workers' comp benefits or file a separate lawsuit, depending on your state. In Massachusetts, for example, injuries caused by an employer's "serious and willful misconduct" may result in double the workers' comp benefits. Under Arkansas statute, an injured employee may choose to file a tort claim instead of workers' comp.
Fraudulent Concealment of Injury
In many states, employers may be sued if they conceal the source of an employee's injury and the injury worsens as a result. For instance, suppose you start to develop a bad cough and other symptoms consistent with asbestosis after starting a new job. You report this to your employer, who knows the building is contaminated with asbestos but fails to mention it. Your symptoms worsen after several months pass, prompting you to seek medical care and take time off work.
In California, the employee in this scenario may collect workers' comp benefits and also file a claim for damages that resulted directly from the employer's concealment.
Violation of Employment Laws
Employers may be held liable for violations of state and federal employment laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So if a disabled employee falls and becomes injured trying to climb an office staircase using crutches (assuming there is no ADA-compliant alternative), she may receive workers' comp benefits and also file an ADA lawsuit.
Handling Claims in Bad Faith
Individual statutes vary, but some states allow separate lawsuits if the employer intentionally delays or improperly handles a workers' comp claim. Some states, including Hawaii, allow lawsuits for bad faith even if the claims were handled negligently (but not necessarily intentionally). California, meanwhile, does not allow bad faith tort claims but instead imposes fines and penalties against the offending employer.
Do You Have a Claim Against Your Employer? Talk to an Attorney
Even the simplest of daily tasks can be more difficult than usual if you have been injured. So why would you pursue remedies for a work-related injury all on your own? If you have questions about whether workers' compensation is the exclusive remedy for your injury, an experienced workers' comp attorney can help.
Contact a qualified workers' compensation attorney to make sure your rights are protected.