Written By Christopher B. Dolan and Megan Irish
This week’s question comes from Kisha J. from San Francisco who asks: Hi, my friend Angelino is a garage door repair man, and he recently got hurt while on a job. While he was up on the ladder working on the overhead door opener, the homeowner put several boxes behind his ladder. He fell on them when he came down the ladder and broke his ankle. He said he has been off work for a couple of weeks now and is making a worker’s compensation claim. I think the homeowner has some responsibility too, because he would not have fallen and broken his ankle if he hadn’t put boxes behind him. Is the homeowner responsible too?
Your friend’s claim may be both a workers compensation claim and a third-party personal injury claim. The two types of claims are compatible and can be made simultaneously. In the most basic sense, a worker’s compensation claim is more limited in the compensation available, but it is often very quickly awarded, and there is no consideration of the injured party’s fault. Third-party personal injury claims often yield more compensation, but usually take longer and will examine the injured party’s own role in the cause of the injury and harm.
The worker’s compensation system is a “no fault” system. So long as the injury occurred while a person was at work, it does not matter who caused the injury. One does not need to prove that the employer or co-workers did anything wrong. Even if the injured party did something wrong, they are still usually covered. The workers compensation system has limited coverage though and is only available to cover medical costs and replace a person’s lost wages. Workers’ compensation claims do not cover general damages.
In a third-party action, when someone is at fault for doing something wrong, the harmed person can seek to recover both special and general damages. In a third-party action the injured party must prove that a third party was negligent, and that the third party’s negligence caused the injury. For example, failing to stop at a red light causing a vehicle collision would likely qualify as negligence by another that caused harm to the injured party. In such a case, special damages are available and cover, in very general terms, things the injured person has receipts for, such as medical bill and lost wages. Moreover, in a third-party action one can also seek to recover general damages, which are typically referred to as pain and suffering. The law includes physical and mental pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, disfigurement, physical impairment, inconvenience, grief, anxiety, humiliation, and emotional distress as elements of general damages.
Generally speaking, third-party cases, are brought when someone other than the employer or coworker was negligent. The most common instances where an employee will bring a third-party action for injuries that occurred when they were working, are for defective products (action where a claim is made against the manufacturer of the product used to do a job), the injury was caused by a toxic or illegal substance, the employer did not carry worker’s compensation insurance, or the injury was caused by a third-party who was not a part of the company.
Workers Compensation and third-party personal injury claims can be brought at the same time. When they are, then the third-party claim may be required to reimburse the workers compensation claim. For example, if all of your friend’s medical bills have been covered in his workers compensation action and he makes a claim for the medical special damages in his third-party action, the worker’s compensation matter may seek reimbursement for what has paid out to your friend as replacement wages. The idea here being that the injured party should only recover his lost wages once. If he receives wage replacement from workers compensation, that is also later paid by the third party, it is only fair that the compensation system be reimbursed.
While most jobs have worker’s compensation coverage, there are two categories of employees who do not receive coverage for injuries at work under a workers compensation plan. Those two special categories are interstate railroad workers and crew members on boats. The railway workers can bring an injury claim under the Federal Employers Liability Act, and vessel crew members can bring injury claims under the Jones Act.
In this situation you’ve talked about the homeowner could face a claim as a third-party defendant. To bring a matter against the homeowner, the homeowner’s actions would need to be evaluated to establish if the actions were negligent. An attorney would need to evaluate the circumstances of your friend’s fall and see if there is a cause of action against the homeowner. We wish your friend a speedy recovery.