What Is The Difference Between Workers’ Compensation and Personal Injury?

December 6, 2022
Chloe C. Murray
When you suffer an injury at work, it is important to know who can be found responsible for the injury and what you can recover from that entity. 

What Are Workers’ Compensation Benefits? 

If you are injured at work, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Workers’ compensation benefits consist of wage loss benefits, medical bills, and in some cases, specific loss benefits. Wage loss benefits are wages that you are no longer earning because you cannot work due to the work injury. An Employer may also be required to pay for medical bills that you incurred as a result of the work injury. Finally, specific loss benefits are benefits (or money) paid for a permanent disfigurement or scar of the head, face or neck or the loss of use of a body part, meaning the body part cannot be used or has been amputated.  

What Are Personal Injury Damages? 

If you are injured in a personal injury realm, meaning that you are suing for the negligence of another party, you may be entitled to tort damages. Negligence is when a person or party does not act in a way that a reasonable person would or should—they are not acting in a way that we would expect them to, and as a result, you are injured. Tort damages are what we think of as “pain and suffering.” If you are injured outside the realm of work, you can recover financially for the physical and emotional damage that you have endured due to the injury. You can also recover medical bills. Finally, you may be able to recover other damages that you qualify for. For example, if your home is damaged due to a negligent contractor, you may be able to recover property damages; if you cannot work due to your injury wherein you slipped and fell at the grocery story, you may be able to recover your lost wages and your future lost future earning capacity; if your husband was injured, you, as the wife, may be entitled to compensation for the loss of all services and companionship of the injured spouse, otherwise known as loss of consortium; if conduct by a defendant is so extreme, it may warrant an extra “layer” of damages where the defendant is being punished for what he did on top of making you whole again, otherwise known as punitive damages.  

Who Can Be Held Responsible For My Work Injury and What Can I Recover? 

Aside from some limited examples explained below, if you are injured in the course and scope of your employment, you cannot recover pain and suffering damages or any other tort damages. The only benefits, or financial recovery, that you can recover from your employer after a work injury, are the wages you may not be receiving because of the work injury and payment of medical bills. In most instances, an employer cannot be held responsible for both workers’ compensation liability and tort liability.  

When you suffer an injury at work, your first instinct may be to go after the person that was at fault for your injury. For example, if you were injured because you slipped and fell after your co-worker spilled water on the floor, you may want to sue your co-worker. Or, if a patient accidentally grabs your arm too tight while you were lifting them, you may want to sue the patient. However, in Pennsylvania, if you suffer a work injury, you can only sue your employer for workers’ compensation benefits. This means that in most cases, if you suffer a work-related injury, you cannot sue your employer, or anyone else at your employer (i.e, the co-worker or the patient), for negligence. This means that you cannot recover any of the tort damages discussed above—only workers’ compensation benefits. This is what is known in Pennsylvania as the exclusive remedy doctrine. 

You may also think that you do not have a workers’ compensation claim if you were at fault. The exclusive remedy applies here too—if you can meet the requirements of proving you sustained a work-related injury, the Employer will be responsible regardless of whether you were at fault.  

As such, if you are injured while in the course and scope of your employment, chances are, you can file a workers’ compensation claim, but you cannot file a personal injury claim. To reiterate, this means that you can recover wage loss, medical and/or specific loss benefits, but you cannot recover anything for your pain and suffering.  

Exceptions To The Exclusive Remedy Doctrine 

One exception to the exclusive remedy rule, or otherwise stated, a circumstance in which you may be entitled to tort damages in the context of a work injury, is if there is a third-party claim involved as well. This claim, or lawsuit, is separate and apart from the workers’ compensation claim. This type of case only arises in certain situations. For example, if you were involved in a motor vehicle accident while driving a client to a doctor’s appointment, you may have a claim against the other driver. Another example would be if you worked as a machine operator, a machine malfunctioned, and you were injured, you may have a claim against the machine manufacturer. In these two examples, you could have a claim against the third party, i.e., the other driver and the product manufacturer, and a claim for workers’ compensation because you were hurt at work. As such, you could potentially recover pain and suffering and other tort damages from the third party, and workers’ compensation benefits from your Employer. While these claims are technically distinct from one another, they can become intertwined. It is extremely important to have a knowledgeable attorney on your side to navigate the potential overlapping claims.  

Another exception to the exclusive remedy rule, is if you were intentionally harmed at work. Sometimes referred to as the “personal animus” exception, you can sue your employer for negligence if someone at your employer—your boss, your co-worker, or anyone else—intentionally harms you for personal reasons unrelated to your work. The standards to meet this personal animus exception are very high and can be complicated.  

Understanding the difference between personal injury and workers’ compensation and when you can sue who can be complex. When you are injured at work, it is important to have an experienced workers’ compensation attorney to navigate these types of claims. 
At Stern & Cohen, we can also assist you with Personal Injury.  Call us.  The consultation is always free.