Workers are injured everyday, from office workers suffering from carpel tunnel to laborers injuring their backs to severe industrial injuries. Injured workers often have a difficult time obtaining full compensation for their loss of earnings, medical care, and other losses resulting from a workplace accident.
In the early 1900s, California developed laws known today as the workers' compensation system. In California, workers' compensation is the “exclusive remedy” for a work related injury — workers may recover benefits through the workers' compensation system but may not sue their employers for their injuries. There are, however, several exceptions which allow an injured worker to bring a civil lawsuit for damages, and not be limited by workers' compensation benefits even though the worker was injured on the job.
First, the exclusive remedy only applies to an injured worker's employer, not third parties. Thus, when an employee is injured due to the negligent act of a person or entity that is not his or her employer, the injured employee may be able to bring a suit against that third party for negligent acts that caused injury. For example, a delivery driver may be injured in a car accident negligently caused by another driver. That other driver, neither a co-employee or employer of the delivery driver, can be held responsible for the delivery driver's injuries suffered in the automobile accident.
Similarly, often worksites, such as a construction site, have several subcontractors working together. If an employee's workplace injury was caused, even in part, by a third party contractor (i.e., not the worker's employer), that third party contractor may be sued for causing the injuries.
Injuries caused by defective product may also be the subject of a personal injury lawsuit against the manufacturers and distributors of the defective product. If a piece of equipment being used by the worker is defective and malfunctions, causing the employee to be injured, any entity involved in manufacturing, designing or selling that piece of equipment has potential liability, and those claims are not barred by workers' compensation exclusivity. As non-employer third parties, entities involved in the stream of commerce of an injury-causing defective product may be responsible for the workers' injuries even though the injury occurred on the job.
There are also several scenarios that take an employer itself outside of the exclusive remedy. The most common of these is when the employer fails to carry workers' compensation. All California employers must provide workers' compensation benefits to their employees under the California Labor Code. If a business employs one or more employees, then it must satisfy the requirement of the law. If, however, an employer violates the law and fails to carry workers' compensation for its employees, it loses the protection of the workers' compensation system and may be held liable by way of civil lawsuit for workplace injuries.
Other exceptions that take an employee's workplace injury outside the scope of the exclusive remedy of workers' compensation are, for example, when a co-employee's action beyond the scope of employment causes injury to another employee, or when a punch press with safety guards removed is involved.
California workers' compensation benefits are designed to provide an injured worker with the medical treatment she needs to recover from the work related injury or illness, partially replace the wages lost while recovering, and helping to return that employee to work, without regard to fault. While necessary to support California's workforce, the benefits available under the workers' compensation system may not be adequate to fully compensate for an injury. An injured worker may be entitled to further benefits not available under workers' compensation laws, such as damages for pain and suffering, in a third party action where the exclusive remedy does not apply.
If you are an injured worker, we are available for a free consultation to evaluate your options.