Before workers’ compensation programs, an injured worker’s only option for compensation was to file a civil suit against the employer for negligence. Under this system, most workers did not receive compensation at all, and those who did had to live without a paycheck or reimbursement for medical bills throughout the negotiation/court process.
In order to ensure that workers received consistent compensation immediately after a work-related injury, workers’ compensation programs were put into place. Workers’ compensation is a no-fault insurance program that pays out reimbursement for medical posts and partial compensation for lost wages (in the form of temporary and permanent disability benefits).
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Workers’ compensation ensures that all injured workers receive compensation after an accident—regardless of who was at fault. However, workers’ compensation is designed to be a tradeoff; an injured worker is guaranteed timely, consistent payments, but he or she is no longer allowed to sue the employer for negligence. This is known as the “exclusive remedy” principle: if an injured employee collects benefits from workers’ compensation, that will be the only legal recourse allowed.
However, there are certain exceptions to this rule. In certain cases, an injured worker can file a personal injury lawsuit AND qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.
If your injury was caused by a defective product, rather that the negligence of your employer or a fellow worker, you could have a civil case under products liability. For example, say a worker on a construction site was using a power saw when the blade suddenly detached, causing serious injuries to the worker’s feet. The injured worker could sue the manufacturer of the saw to recover damages, as well as collect workers’ compensation benefits.
New Jersey employees are required by law to carry workers’ compensation insurance, but unfortunately there are still some who choose to ignore this requirement. The Uninsured Employers Fund provides temporary disability benefits and medical expenses to workers injured while working for uninsured employers. However, the employer is still liable for these payments, and if the worker not paid, he or she can sue for the money. It is important to note that if you recover money in a civil suit, you could be required to pay back the money awarded through the Uninsured Employers Fund. (But since personal injury cases typically yield much more money than workers’ compensation provides, this is not usually an issue.)
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If your injury was caused by someone other than your direct employer, you have the option to file a civil suit against the third party. For example, say a woman was using a company car to attend a business meeting across town. While on her way, she is rear-ended by a driver who is texting behind the wheel and never saw her car. Because this driver is the proximate cause of her injuries, the injured worker could bring a personal injury lawsuit against him and also collect workers’ compensation for her injuries and lost wages.
Many injured workers choose to pursue civil cases because of the full compensation offered (rather than the “70 percent of average weekly wage” that disability benefits rely on). An injured worker can recover damages for pain, suffering, and loss of quality of life in a personal injury case, but not through workers’ compensation.