If you are injured due the negligence of another person, you can hold the negligent party liable for your damages through a personal injury lawsuit. This can be crucial to helping you pay for medical expenses and the many other losses you have suffered — and will continue to suffer — due to your injury, but it’s also time-consuming and sometimes difficult.
One of the key purposes behind Rhode Island’s workers’ compensation system is to smooth the process of getting compensation for those who were injured at work. An employee who is injured at work must inform their employer, and the employer’s workers’ compensation insurance pays for the workers’ medical care. In cases of more serious injury, workers’ compensation can also pay a percentage of the worker’s wages while they are unable to return to work.
The system doesn’t always work as smoothly as it should, but compared to a personal injury lawsuit, most workers’ compensation claims are pretty straightforward. There’s no need to prove that the injury was caused by the employer’s negligence.
There’s a tradeoff for that convenience. Workers’ compensation is an exclusive remedy. That means if you collect workers’ compensation benefits after a work accident, you can’t file a lawsuit against your employer involving the same accident.
Why would you want to? Because sometimes workers’ compensation benefits aren’t enough to compensate you for all you lost due to an injury, and you could get more through a personal injury lawsuit, if that were available to you.
Importantly, this exclusive remedy rule may bar you from filing a personal injury lawsuit against your employer, but it doesn’t bar you from filing a lawsuit against another responsible party.
For example, imagine you are working at a busy construction site where multiple contractors are involved. You work for a carpentry contractor. During the course of your employment you are badly injured due to the negligence of an electrician who is working at the same site. You get medical care and some compensation for your lost wages through your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance, and so you are barred from filing a personal injury lawsuit against your employer even if their negligence did contribute to your injuries. However, you are not barred from filing a lawsuit against the electrician and their employer.
In some cases, a third-party claim like this can help an injured worker to recover more compensation than they would have through workers’ compensation alone. However, this approach has unique complications.
When you file a lawsuit against a third party, your employer’s insurer takes out a lien against the award you will receive in the case. If you win, part of your award goes directly to the insurer to compensate it for what it spent on your workers’ compensation benefits. Furthermore, you can’t settle your third-party claim out of court without the insurer’s approval.
So, if you hope your third-party claim will double your recovery, you’re probably going to be disappointed. However if you’re successful, you can end up with more than you would have received through workers’ compensation alone.