The answer to this question – like most questions in the law – is “it depends.” Generally speaking, Pennsylvania workers’ compensation is a “no-fault” system. In other words, regardless of fault, if you get injured at work, your sole remedy is your workers’ compensation rights. If the injury was your fault, you still get these benefits. If the injury was no one’s fault, you are entitled to your workers’ compensation benefits. However, if the injury was the fault of your employer, the same rules apply – you get workers’ compensation and that is it. You cannot sue your employer for their negligence. When the Workers’ Compensation Act was written over 100 years ago, this was referred to as the “trade off.” A worker gets these benefits regardless of fault, but, in return, cannot sue their employer. Remember, the employer stands in the shoes of its employees. Thus, if your injury is due to the negligence of your co-worker, that does not give you the right to sue the co-worker or the employer. The co-worker is “the employer” in this analysis and as I described above, they cannot be sued.
Exceptions to the Rule
There are some exceptions. If your employer neglected to carry workers’ compensation insurance, you can actually sue them if your injury was due to their negligence. If there was an intentional tort – very hard to prove, but if you can demonstrate that the employer intended to harm you, there is an avenue to be able to sue them. There are also circumstances where the employer has umbrella companies and a deep dive into their corporate structure might open the door to be able to sue a parent or subsidiary for an injury at work. Nevertheless, all of these situations are fairly rare. For the most part, you cannot sue your employer for your work injury in Pennsylvania.
Despite the above, there are many occasions where an injury could be the fault of a third party. The most obvious example is a car accident. If your job involves driving and you are in a motor vehicle crash, then you have your workers’ compensation claim with your employer AND you have the right to sue the party at fault – the other driver. Third-party cases are also commonly found on construction sites. You are an electrician and you are walking across the job site and fall into a hole. Odds are, it was not the electrical company’s responsibility to fix that hole or appropriately cover it up. It could be the fault of the general contractor or another subcontractor on-site. One or both of these companies can be sued, in addition to your workers’ compensation claim with your employer. Moreover, many times, third party liability is more subtle. Perhaps you are a nurse and slip on water or a recently waxed floor in a hospital. If the maintenance of the floors was the responsibility of your employer, then you are limited to your workers’ compensation claim only. But many times, floor maintenance is done by an outside contractor. I would same the same for snow/ice removal on the premises of an employer. If it is an outside company’s job to clean it up, they can be sued for your injuries.
Potential Wrongful Termination Cases
I should add here that you may be able to sue your employer for conduct that takes after your injury. What comes to mind here is wrongful termination. For example, if you get injured at work and report it to your employer and they fire you for reporting an injury, you have a workers’ compensation claim with them and you may have a wrongful termination claim. Pennsylvania employees cannot be fired for reporting a work injury. That is against the law. You can then pursue your workers’ compensation case and an employment law case.
Contacting an Experienced Attorney
All legal remedies should be explored when you are harmed at work. No stones should be left unturned. There are damages that can be recovered in other lawsuits that are not available in a workers’ compensation claim. The real key is having a lawyer that is adept at recognizing all potential cases. I have uncovered cases for my clients that have resulted in substantial settlements beyond their workers’ compensation case. Not all lawyers will do this deep dive. At Stern & Cohen, we firmly believe in helping our clients explore all potential cases that may be available to them. Contact us today!
2001 Market Street, Suite 3400 Philadelphia, PA 19103