Can I sue my employer?

It’s a common question. “Can I sue my employer, it’s their fault I got hurt at work?”  The question usually comes with a story about an employer breaking safety rules, a coworker doing something wrong or unreasonable work expectations.  The worker is hurt, out of work, and frankly, angry. Their boss shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this, should they?

Although it is not the answer most people want,  as a general rule, you can not sue your employer for your work related injury. (There is a narrow exception for intentional injuries which we’ll talk about another time) Here comes the history lesson. In 1911 Washington State employers and labor entered into a great compromise. They weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel, workers compensation laws were being passed across the country. It had become painfully clear the Common Law system for resolving lawsuits was not effective for work related injuries. Workers waited too long for financial and medical assistance, the cost to the employer was unpredictable, and the loss to the State’s economy was growing. The preamble to our Industrial Insurance Act is really sort of inspiring,  if you’re in the mood to be inspired. RCW 51.04.010  In a nutshell, workers are valuable, and the State should protect them. So, the great compromise.

There would be an administrative system to provide sure and speedy benefits to injured workers. The worker does not have to prove negligence. In other words, it is a no fault system, it does not matter why the injury happened. In exchange for these sure and speedy benefits  and a no fault system, the injured worker gives up the right to sue the employer. The damages which the worker can recover are limited to those specific benefits found in the statute.

So, think of the typical auto accident case. If someone is hurt, they go to the doctor,  and pay the medical bills. If they miss work, they lose the pay. There is a civil suit filed. Each side points at the other as being the one at fault. It can take years to resolve. When all is said and done the injured party can recover the costs of medical care, lost wages, pain and suffering and other damages proven to the court, but only if they can show fault or negligence . 

In workers compensation we aren’t concerned with fault. we want to make sure you get appropriate medical care, and time loss to replace any lost wages as soon as possible. No delay, no long lawsuits.  So, “No” you can’t sue your employer. But,  you can and should file a workers compensation claim if you are injured at work, that’s how you protect yourself.

Note: for another day. What if someone besides my employer causes my work injury?

15 thoughts on “Can I sue my employer?

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « WELCH&CONDON

  2. i got hurt on the job. had back surg have no filling in right foot fall alot have plates in my back got bloodclots in both have to do lite duty becaus employer will not let me be retraend. being thay made this job now i take a paycut from 16.50 to 12.00.can thay do this

    • Sounds like your employer has offered permanent light duty work either during the Ability to Work Assessment or after you were found eligible for vocational plan development. You should carefully evaluate the job to determine that it is within your physical limitations and current work skills. You can file a dispute with the Vocational Dispute Resolution Office if you have information that the job exceeds your abilities. Otherwise, Yes, the employer can offer you a job which pays less than your job at the time of injury. You will be eligible for Loss of Earning Power benefits until your claim closes.
      I understand your frustration. That said, retraining is not always the best path. Some workers are better financially and emotionally if they are able to return to work quicker with an employer they are familiar with. The cut in pay is difficult to swallow, but retraining does not guarantee higher wages, particularly in these challenging economic times. It is possible that a quicker return to work will result in pay increases over time that would be lost during the time spent in retraining.

  3. I work for a company in while they are laying off employees. Last day being in about 90 days. Recently the mold in the building has gotten horrible. There have been multiple reports to the health department and they have sent letters and the letters have be posted as expected but the problem has never been solved in at least a year now. They basically have people come and band-aid fix the exposed mold but never fix the problem. Many of us here are so sick from the mold, Sneezing daily, coughing, sniffling, to the point where you’d think each of us had allergies and weren’t taking our medication. I am wondering if I can sue for this and on what grounds. Also, due to the last day being in 90 days, does that pose an issue?

    Thank you for any advice!

    • I would suggest starting with a qualified medical specialist to evaluate any connection between your symptoms and your work environment. A physician who specializes in Occupational Medicine would be your first choice. You don’t say where you are, but if you are in Western Washington I would send you to the Occupational Medicine Department at Harborview. Let them know about your work environment, and they should be evaluate whether there is a connection, or whether you are suffering from seasonal allergies (which have been particular bad this year!)
      If the physician believes there is a connection between your symptoms and your work environment, you should file an L&I claim, the doctor will help you complete the Application for Benefits. This will be the only claim possible against your employer. There may be a separate third-party claim if the building is owned or maintained by an entity other than your employer. This is something which can be investigated after the medical connection, if any, has been established.
      The fact that you are facing a layoff does not affect your right to file an L&I claim for a work related injury.

    • You might not have agreed – but 100 years ago business and labor agreed that a sure and speedy workers compensation system was in everyone’s best interest. Workers compensation is not a damage recovery system – like a motor vehicle accident claim. In that situation, if another party is negligent then you have a claim and can sue. Generally, you provide for your own medical treatment (might be through PIP or your personal health insurance, or out of pocket) You deal with the consequences of your lost wages. When you have recovered, or nearly recovered, your damages are calculated and a claim is made. There may be counter arguments that you were also at fault – or contributed to the accident or injuries. The process can take years.

      In stark contrast, a workers compensation system is not focused on reimbursing you for the damages caused by your injury or proving anyone was at fault or negligent. It is a safety net system, not a damage recovery system. It is there to provide medical treatment, cover your lost wages, and provide services to get you back on your feet and back to work as soon as is practical given your particular injury. Is it a perfect system? Of course not, sometime far from it. But for the majority of work injuries it is a workable system. If it isn’t working for you and your claim – get help. Sometimes understanding the way the system works is crucial to getting the benefits you are entitled to receive.

  4. I was working for a furniter place and a co worker ask me to bring down a 400lb dressor and it sliped off his hands and the dressor fell on me and hurt my back my back hurts bad some days but it hurts evry day my employer did not do nothing for me till after a week and did not pay me for the week i was hurt can i sue

    • You cannot sue your employer or a co-worker for a work injury. Your sole remedy is to file a workers compensation claim. If a medical provider takes you off work because of your work injury you would be entitled to time loss benefits to replace your lost wages. Your medical treatment will also be covered. If you haven’t done so already, file a claim.

      Note – the one exception to workers compensation being your sole remedy is if the employer intended to injure you. This is a very narrow exception, and does not appear to apply to your circumstances.

  5. i have been working for a rock crushing company for the past 15 years. i have been diagnosed with emphysema and one of the causes is dust. i work in a very dusty environment and i dont smoke. now i have tofind a new occupation and now have an incurable disease. what are my options?

    • You should file a workers compensation claim, if you haven’t already. You may need to be seen by a specialist if there are questions about the relationship between your work environment and your diagnosis. There are some terrific occ med pulmonary specialist at Harborview medical center and in the Seattle area.
      You cannot sue your employer. You may have a third party claim if your work was done at a quarry owned by someone other than your employer. If you are in Washington, I can answer other specific questions. As always, if you have questions about your rights it is a good idea to call an attorney. If you’re in Washington, you can get my number off our home page.

  6. I was at work went outside to help a customer and fell on the ice buy the exit door and broke my tailbone, can I sue my employer for not properly taking care of the ice?

    • You should file a workers compensation claim. You may hear about a ‘parking lot exception’ – but that applies more to when you are coming and going from work. If you were in the course and scope of your employment and went outside to help a customer, you will be covered by L&I. If your claim is allowed, you cannot sue your employer. That said, oftentimes parking lots are not actually owned by the business who uses them. You might ask your employer who owns and is responsible for maintaining the parking lot. If it is a third party, other than your employer, then you may have a cause of action against that entity.

  7. i fell of a front end loader cause the door popped loose and the wind cought it and threw me to the ground. well when i came to my boss pick me up and him and a couple other bosses picked rocks out my head. he put me back to work instead of call a ems . can i sue them

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