Torts versus Workers’ Compensation – Can My Employees Sue My Business?

The workers’ compensation system is designed to provide a method by which an employee who sustains a work-related injury may obtain reimbursement for medical care and disability payments.  California is a “no fault” workers’ compensation system, so even if the employer or employee is not “at fault” for the work-related injury, an employee may still recover expenses and disability payments.  This is different than if the employee were to file a civil claim for negligence or an intentional tort.  In that sort of case, an employee would be required to go before a judge and prove the elements of his or her claim, which would always include a degree of fault on the employer’s part.  In the vast majority of cases, if an employee is injured at work, he or she is required to go through the workers’ compensation system in order to recover for the cost of injuries or obtain payment for temporary or permanent disability.  However, there are some limited situations in which an employee may choose to go outside the typical workers’ compensation system.


The type of suit that an employer should be most cautious of in this sort of situation is where an employee alleges that his or her injuries were caused by Serious and Willful misconduct on the part of the employer.    For example, if an employer is fully aware that using a certain chemical will cause injury to the employees working with the chemical but fails or even refuses to provide safety equipment for the employees, a Serious and Willful cause of action could be appropriate.  Clearly to combat this sort of claim, an employer should take all reasonable steps to make sure employees are safe and have the safety gear needed.  Employers should also speak with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney about “serious and willful” claims under the California Labor Code and how these claims can be avoided and defended.


An employee could also choose to sue a third party, meaning someone other than the employer.  An employee could choose to sue a contractor, a vendor, or the manufacturer of a faulty product.  If this is the case, the employer may want to get involved in that suit under the theory of subrogation in order to reduce any costs to the employer pursuant to any serious and willful claim made by the employee.


Workers’ compensation can be complicated, and it can seem even more so when an employee chooses to file an additional suit outside the system.  If you have questions about your business and how a civil suit interacts with workers’ compensation, call me today at (714) 516-8188.  I am experienced in helping my clients navigate these situations and look forward to talking with you about your business and possible solutions.

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