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Workers’ Compensation vs. Personal Injury Lawsuits: Understanding the Difference

By Jeremy Bradford
Founding Partner

Injuries can occur anywhere – including while you are at work. When you suffer an injury, you should be able to receive compensation. But it’s important to understand that depending upon the circumstances, there are two different ways in which you may do so: workers’ compensation or a personal injury claim. Here’s what to understand about the differences between the two. 

Under the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act, all businesses that employ three or more people must obtain workers’ compensation insurance or qualify as self-insured employers for purposes of paying workers’ compensation their employees. 

1. Proving fault is only required under a personal injury claim.

In a workers’ compensation claim, it’s irrelevant who was at fault. However, in a personal injury claim it’s important to prove that the defendant acted negligently. When it comes to personal injury claims, it’s not enough to prove that the accident was what led to your injuries. You must also demonstrate that it was the result of negligence. 

Real Life Examples of a Personal Injury Claim

For instance, while walking down a grocery store aisle, you accidentally slip and fall on a spilled liquid on the floor. As a result of the fall, you injure your arm. In this example there may not be any negligence involved. The grocery store could have taken reasonable steps to maintain a safe environment for customers, such as implementing regular inspections and cleaning procedures. However, in this case, the spill might have occurred just moments before you arrived in the aisle, making it impossible for the store to address the issue in a timely manner. The store acted responsibly in its duty of care, promptly addressing spills and conducting regular maintenance and did not know or should have known about the spill. Thus, there would be no negligence on the grocery store’s part. Therefore, your injury would be considered an accident without any negligence by the grocery store.

In another instance, you might have spilled your bottle of water on the floor at the grocery store and you slip and fall on it. In this example, you caused the hazard and knew of it. You couldn’t recover under a personal injury claim because the grocery store was not negligent. You were injured as a result of your own actions. If you can’t prove negligence, you can’t recover under personal injury. 

Alternately, if you are injured while you’re at work, it doesn’t matter whose fault it was. You will most likely be able to recover under workers’ compensation benefits. 

2. The types of recovery differ. 

Another big difference between the two forms of recovery is the type of compensation that’s available under each. Under workers’ compensation, you are entitled to weekly compensation for time out of work, medical bills, benefits for permanent injury and vocational rehabilitation. You are not entitled to damages for pain and suffering whereas under personal injury you are – as well as past and future medical bills, lost earning capacity, permanent injury and the loss of enjoyment of life. Additionally, you generally are unable to sue your co-workers or employer under workers’ compensation, except in some limited exceptions. 

3. There are limited exceptions under which you can sue your employer or co-worker for personal injury. 

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-10.1, is known as the “exclusive remedy” provision of the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act.  This statute generally limits an injured employee’s recovery to only workers’ compensation benefits for an on-the-job injury. This provision prevents an injured worker from directly suing his or her employer and co-workers even if the injury resulted from the employer’s or co-worker’s negligence.  

However, there are certain instances in which you may be able to sue your employer for personal injury even after filing for workers’ compensation. These claims are referred to as “Woodson claims” after the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in Woodson v. Rowland, 407 S.E.2d 222 (1991). In the Woodson case,  the court ruled that the “exclusive remedy” provision does not apply  “when an employer intentionally engages in misconduct knowing it substantially certain to cause serious injury or death to employees and an employee is injured or killed by that misconduct.” In such cases, the employer has committed an intentional tort which is not barred by the “exclusive remedy” provision of the Act.

Similarly, there are certain instances in which you may be able to sue your co-worker for personal injury even after filing for workers’ compensation. These claims are referred to as “Pleasant claims” after the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in Pleasant v. Johnson, 325 S.E.2d 244 (1985). In the Pleasant case, the court ruled that if a co-worker causes an injury from “willful, wanton and reckless negligence,” it constitutes an intentional tort, and the “exclusive remedy” provision does not apply.

4. You may receive both when a third party is responsible for the injury.

You are entitled to receive Workers’ Compensation benefits while also pursuing third party personal injury claims. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-10.2, indicates that injured workers have a right to workers’ compensation benefits, even if the injury was caused by the negligence of an individual or entity other than the employer. 

For instance, you are employed as a delivery driver for a company, and you are driving a company vehicle to make a delivery. While on your route, another driver runs a red light and collides with your delivery vehicle, causing you to sustain significant injuries. In this scenario, you would typically be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits since the accident occurred while you were performing work-related duties. Additionally,  because the collision was caused by the negligent act of another driver, you may have a third-party claim against that driver. You could sue a personal injury claim against the at-fault driver and receive workers’ compensation benefits.

It is important to note that when an employee recovers damages against a third party, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-10.2, grants employers the right to reimbursement for certain workers’ compensation benefits that they has paid to the employee. 

Bradford Law Fights for Those in Charlotte Who Have Been Injured While on the Job

Injuries while on the job can have a significant impact on your life.  If you have suffered injuries while at work, you may be entitled to compensation – whether or not your employer was negligent. While no money can undo what has transpired, compensation can help you to move forward with your life.

At Bradford Law, we understand the lasting impact accidents can have on you. We will work tirelessly to help you receive meaningful compensation and move in the direction of recovery. We have comprehensive knowledge of the applicable laws and will put those laws to work for you. To learn more or to schedule a free consultation, contact us today!

About the Author
I am Jeremy Bradford, the founding and managing attorney of Bradford Law. From my offices in Charlotte, NC, I travel all across North Carolina helping injured people fight against insurance companies, in what could be life-altering circumstances. I have made a point to develop strong relationships with my clients. I take the trust my clients put in me personally and put myself into every case. If my client calls, my client will always be able to speak directly with me. You will get to know me as we work our way through the personal injury process. So when we make recommendations on whether to settle or go to trial, you will know your best interests are always at heart.