The simple answer to this question is yes, but only in very limited circumstances. One cannot generally sue their employer for injuries that happen at work. There are, however, some exceptions where an injured worker may “sue” to be compensated for a workplace injury. Massachusetts’ workers’ compensation laws provide that if one is injured at work, then the injured person’s “exclusive remedy’ against their employer is compensation through the workers’ compensation system. The Massachusetts workers’ compensation system, much like those workers’ compensation systems in other states, provides only limited compensation for work injuries. In stark contrast, civil lawsuits for injuries allow an injured person to pursue compensation for 100% of past and future wage loss, 100% of cost of medical expenses (subject to the insurer’s lien), and pain and suffering. Many times, an injured worker is surprised to hear that they are limited to workers’ compensation benefits as a result of their work injury. Because the settlement value of civil lawsuit generally far exceeds the settlement value of a workers’ compensation claim, it is always necessary to investigate a work injury to determine whether a civil lawsuit may also be pursued. A few situations where an injured worker may be able to pursue additional compensation through a civil lawsuit include:
- A “Third Party Negligence” Claim: this option is available when a third party (i.e. someone other than the injured worker’s employer and/or co-worker(s)) negligently caused the injury. In this situation, an injured worker is entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits, and then in a separate claim, bring a lawsuit for additional compensation against the negligent “third party.” Any benefits paid by a workers’ compensation insurer to an injured worker that overlap the same benefits sought by the injured worker in the third-party lawsuit are subject to the workers’ compensation insurer’s lien on the third party settlement. This means that some of the workers’ compensation benefits paid for the injured worker must be paid back to the workers’ compensation insurer when the third-party lawsuit settles, in order to prevent a double recovery.
- The employer does not carry workers’ compensation insurance: If an employer does not carry workers’ compensation insurance, or is designated as a “self-insured” on the date of injury, then the injured worker can bring a direct civil claim against that uninsured employer and seek “full damages” from that employer. The injured worker would be entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits from the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents Trust Fund, and then bring the civil claim for “Failure to Carry Worker’s Compensation” against the employer. The DIA Trust fund would then have an enforceable lien on the proceeds of any money received by the injured worker from their uninsured employer. The problem with many of these claims is that the uninsured employer does not have any assets to pursue in the civil claim, and any judgment entered by the court may be unrecoverable.
- The injured worker was not an “employee” but rather an independent contractor, or an employee of a separate legal business entity than the entity whose negligence caused the injury: Massachusetts’ independent contractor laws are written in a way that almost always makes it so that an employee-employer relationship exists. Because of this, it is hard to prove that an injured worker was an independent contractor, rather than an employee. However, if an injured worker can establish that they were not an employee at the time of injury, then they may bring a civil claim against the company that contracted them and caused their injury. Another possible situation where one may bring a civil claim or lawsuit against their “employer” arises when an employer has formed multiple business entities. If the injured worker was employed by a business entity other than the one that negligently caused the injury, then a civil claim may be pursued against that separate, negligent business entity.
In summary, although situations where an injured worker may seek additional compensation by bringing a lawsuit to be fully compensation for a workplace injury are limited, because the compensation available through these claims far exceeds the compensation from the workers’ compensation system, all workplace injuries should be thoroughly investigated in order for the injured worker to receive maximum compensation for the harm caused by the work injury.