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How to Determine If You Can Sue Outside of Workers’ Compensation

  • Workers' Compensation | Apex NC

How to Determine If You Can Sue Outside of Workers’ Compensation

When you are injured on the job, the general rule is that the only source of compensation for your injuries is through your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance. That rule is in place because workers’ compensation is meant to serve dual purposes – employee coverage and employer certainty.

Specifically, workers’ compensation is meant to ensure that an injured employee has a fast, effective avenue through which to receive the necessary coverage for any and all medical expenses and lost wages that flow from a workplace injury. On the employer side, workers’ compensation promotes certainty by limiting the employer’s liability. Indeed, your employer relies on workers’ compensation insurance to avoid being sent into bankruptcy from a lawsuit based on an unexpected workplace accident.

The problem with workers’ compensation as an exclusive remedy, however, is that it constrains an injured employee’s ability to obtain benefits. Workers’ compensation does not provide for punitive damages or pain and suffering, and benefits are limited to the workers’ compensation laws that are often tied to a percentage of your wages.

There are, however, a few exceptions to the general rule, which allow you to sue your employer or related parties in court. To determine whether you fit one of those five exceptions, speak to an experienced workers’ compensation attorney in Sanford, North Carolina.  

Injury Due to a Defective Product (Products Liability)

Assume that Charlie, an employee for a cardboard company, is adjusting cardboard in a box-cutting machine that is used to create foldable storage boxes. The mechanism he uses to stop the machine from running gets stuck, and Charlie’s hand is injured. While Charlie can certainly collect workers’ compensation from his employer, he also may have a product liability case against the manufacturer of the defective box-cutting machine.

When an employee is injured due to a defective or inherently dangerous piece of equipment, the manufacturer of the equipment may be held liable. Moreover, a product liability lawsuit could result in compensation for the employee, including pain and suffering.  

Suing a Co-Worker (Pleasant Claims)

In North Carolina, a co-employee can be sued if the worker is injured as a result of willful, wanton and reckless negligence of a co-employee. In the case of Pleasant v. Johnson, a worker was injured when a co-employee attempted to scare Mr. Pleasant by sneaking up close to him in a truck and blowing the horn. The employee misjudged how close he was and hit Mr. Pleasant with the truck, seriously damaging his knee.

Intentional or Egregious Conduct by Your Employer (Woodson Claims)

In most jurisdictions, you have the ability to sue for an employer’s intentional or egregiously reckless conduct resulting in injury. For example, in recent years a timber company coerced several workers to fashion a makeshift way to get material out of a ditch using a tractor in a manner that violated various Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules. The tractor fell on one worker and injured him for life. The recklessness of the employer in allowing an unsafe working environment provided an opportunity for the employee to sue outside of workers’ compensation.

In NC, these types of cases are known as “Woodson” claims and are very difficult to prove. One must be able to establish that the employer intentionally engaged in misconduct that he/she knew was substantially certain to cause serious injury or death and the employee is injured or killed as a result of that misconduct.

Your Employer Fails to Have Workers’ Compensation Insurance

It should be no surprise that if your employer neglects to obtain workers’ compensation insurance you may sue in court for any workplace injuries. The upside of being able to go to court, rather than through workers’ compensation, is that you can likely obtain more in damages from a suit than from what you may recover from workers’ compensation insurance.  

However, the downside is that you need to prove your case in civil court before obtaining a monetary judgment. This is further complicated by the fact that general liability rules (proving negligence) and defenses (contributory negligence) apply. One of our experienced workers’ compensation attorneys can help you determine if you have rights to sue your employer outside of workers’ compensation insurance.  

Injury from the Actions of a Third Party

On-the-job injuries may not come from your employer’s recklessness, a defective machine, or toxic substances in the workplace. In some cases, an unrelated third party could be the cause of an injury in the course of your employment. The classic example of this type of injury is when a person drives for their job, such as a UPS delivery driver, and gets in an accident with another car.  Assuming for purposes of the example that the other driver was entirely at fault, you can sue that responsible third party for damages, including expenses and lost wages.

In sum, workers’ compensation insurance is generally the avenue for compensation when you get injured on the job. However, we have outlined five circumstances where you likely may be able to obtain greater monetary damages than workers’ compensation can provide by suing outside of workers’ compensation insurance. Schedule a free consultation with one of our experienced workers’ compensation attorneys in Sanford, North Carolina, to learn more about your rights.