Can I Sue My Employer if I am Hurt at Work?
Have you been hurt at work? If so, then you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. In Pennsylvania, workers’ compensation entitlements and benefits are governed by the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, 77 P.S. §§ 1-1041.4, 2501-2626 (the “WC Act”).
Because of the Workers’ Compensation Act, if you are injured on the job or contract an occupational disease, you cannot sue your employer for damages related to your workplace injury or illness. Filing for workers’ compensation benefits is your exclusive remedy.
Employer Negligence: What the Law Used to be
In most areas of law, like car accidents, if someone is negligent and causes injury or damage, it is normal to sue the responsible party and recover for every possible category of damages. This is how workplace injuries were handled legally.
The legal theory of recovery is called “negligence.” Black’s Law Dictionary says that negligence is “the failure to exercise the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised in a similar situation.” Pennsylvania law, in at least one place, defines “negligence” as a “… continuing or persistent action or omission in violation of a duty.”
In a court of law, there are four “elements” of negligence:
- The person/entity causing damages (the “defendant”) owed you (the plaintiff) a duty
- The defendant breached that duty
- The breach caused your injuries
- You suffered actual injury or loss
An “element” is an essential component of a legal claim. If you cannot prove with evidence each of the four elements of negligence, you cannot win your lawsuit.
In an employment setting, it used to be that a workplace injury would be resolved through a negligence lawsuit. Assume, as an example, that we are dealing with a giant cutting machine of some sort. All employers must maintain a safe and hazard-free work environment. This includes the responsibility to keep machinery safe. That is element one – duty.
Let’s also assume that your boss did not have the cutting machine serviced on a regular basis. That is element two – breach of duty. Now, one day, there is an accident with the machine, and there is a loss of limb. That is element four – actual injury or loss.
The tricky part legally is element three – causation. Can it be proven that the employer’s failure to regularly service the cutting machine led to or caused the accident where there was a loss of limb? If element three is not proven to the satisfaction of a Pennsylvania jury, then the worker could receive no award.
Litigation Takes Years
If you are injured at work, you need immediate medical care and payment for your lost wages from the injury. However, litigation takes years as the lawyers and judges prepare for trial. In the meantime, you could not work, could not pay your medical bills and your family has been suffering.
Employer Defenses to Negligence: Worker Or Co-Worker Was at Fault
To avoid being held liable by juries, back before workers’ compensation laws, employers often submitted evidence that the accident was caused by the worker or by a co-worker. In our example above, the employer might say:
- “We DID service the cutting machine. The accident is not our fault. It was worker Jane’s fault because she was not wearing the safety clothing we provided” or
- “The accident was not our fault. It was worker John’s fault. Unbeknownst to us, he was drunk and stumbled against Jane pushing her into the cutting machine.”
Here again, we can see how element three — causation — is the difficult element to prove. If Jane’s lawyers cannot prove to the satisfaction of a Pennsylvania jury that the loss of a limb was not her fault or not the fault of drunken John, then Jane could receive a zero-dollar award.
Workers’ Compensation is No-Litigation and No-Fault
To avoid the legal quagmire of negligence lawsuits, workers’ compensation was created as “no-litigation” and “no-fault.” This means that if you are injured at work, you do not have the right to sue for negligence. Your exclusive remedy is to file a workers’ compensation claim.
At the same time, your employer can no longer argue about fault. If the injury was your fault, it does not matter. You are still entitled to your benefits. If the injury was drunken John’s fault, again, it does not matter. You are entitled to your benefits. You are entitled to your workers’ compensation benefits regardless of fault.
Workers’ compensation laws were also intended to be quick so that an injured worker can pay for medical care and recover lost wages to provide for his or her family. That is why, if you are injured, you must act quickly and report your injury to your employer within 21 days. See our discussion here.
Third-Party Claims for Injured Workers
Even though you cannot sue your employer for a workplace injury, the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act does not prevent you from suing some third party if your injuries or medical conditions are a result of the negligent or careless conduct of that third party. These work injury lawsuits are based on negligence as described above and are generally called third-party claims.
In our example above, if the cutting machine was defectively manufactured, then Jane might have a third-party claim against the manufacturer. This is similar to an automobile accident where the brakes fail. Maybe the brakes were faulty when the car was made; maybe some repair shop did not repair the brakes correctly. In either case, the brake manufacturer and/or the repair shop might be liable.
For an actual example under Pennsylvania law, see Poole v. WCAB, 810 A.2d 1182 (2002) (worker received workers’ compensation for a slip and fall and then filed a third-party lawsuit seeking to recover damages from third parties who were responsible for the slippery conditions).
If there is a third-party lawsuit for negligence, then you, as a worker, are entitled to additional damages beyond those that are paid through the workers’ compensation benefits system. Damages recoverable through workers’ compensation include:
- Lost wages
- Medical expenses
- Emotional distress (sometimes)
- Other directly-related expenses (such as mileage for trips to and from your doctors)
- Temporary disability
- Permanent disability
- Temporary disfigurement
- Permanent disfigurement
- Loss of limb
- Death benefits
- Vocational rehabilitation
- Funeral expenses
Damages recoverable in addition to those listed above in a third-party negligence lawsuit would include:
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress (if not paid through workers’ compensation)
- Loss of useful life — damages for being unable to enjoy day-to-day activities the plaintiff enjoyed before the injury
- Loss of society — damages for being unable to enjoy the company of friends and family
- Loss of consortium — an injured worker’s spouse may be able to bring a claim for loss of consortium resulting from the loss of the ability to maintain a sexual relationship and loss of companionship, protection, and guidance from the spouse
- Punitive damages (under some circumstances)
Note that your employer can subrogate against any judgment that you receive in a third-party action to avoid you getting a “double recovery.”
Wrongful Termination After Workers’ Compensation Injuries
In addition to third-party negligence claims, if a worker is fired or punished after making a workers’ compensation claim, then the worker can sue the employer for retaliation and/or wrongful termination. Examples of retaliation include:
- Changing your job duties
- Lowering your wages
- Reducing your hours or your overtime
- Changing your hours or shift
- Demoting you
Retaliation and wrongful firing are illegal under state and federal law. If you are being treated unfairly in the workplace after an injury, consult with a skilled and experienced workers’ compensation lawyer like those at Krasno, Krasno & Onwudinjo. Call immediately.
Krasno, Krasno & Onwudinjo can Help
As you can see, workers’ compensation law is vast and intricate. You need good lawyers to help make sense of it all. If you have been injured on the job, call the work injury lawyers from Krasno, Krasno & Onwudinjo. Located in Philadelphia, Krasno, Krasno & Onwudinjo has been serving injured Pennsylvania workers since 1936.
We have decades of experience helping Pennsylvania citizens recover workers’ compensation benefits. Call us today for a free no-obligation consultation. We will help determine what benefits you are entitled to and we will fight for you against the insurance companies. Call today at 800.952.9640 or use this form on our website.
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