workers compensation and car accidentsEmployees who are injured in a car accident while driving for an employer may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits and personal injury damages

Most car accidents that cause injuries result in insurance claims, and sometimes civil lawsuits. Whether an injured person’s claim should be brought against the other driver’s insurance company or against his employer’s workers’ compensation insurance company will depend on the circumstances. In some cases, a claim can be brought against both.

Car Accidents and Workers’ Compensation

Employees who are injured in a car accident may seek workers’ compensation benefits if they were driving as part of their employment. Commuting to and from work is not usually considered work-related, although in some cases (such as driving to a distant work site that is not the employee’s usual place of employment), injuries suffered in a traffic accident while commuting might be covered.

Whether driving is work-related is often disputed. For example, an accident that occurs while an employee is driving to or from lunch, may or may not be covered by workers’ compensation insurance. If the employee is running an errand for the employer during lunch, however, injuries caused by a car accident are more likely to be covered. A Santa Rosa workers’ compensation lawyer can advise injured workers whether their traffic accident injuries are likely to be covered by workers’ compensation insurance.

Negligence Claims vs. Workers’ Compensation Claims

In the civil justice system, a person injured in a car accident who seeks compensation must prove that the other driver was at fault. In other words, the injured person must prove that the accident was caused, at least in part, by another person’s negligence.

In California, an accident victim can recover damages for injuries caused by another person’s negligence even if the injured person shared responsibility for the accident However, the damages are reduced in proportion to the injued person’s own fault. For example, if the injured person was 30% at fault, any damages awarded to him would be reduced by 30%.

The workers’ compensation system however, is a no-fault system. If an employee is injured at work — for instance while driving at work — he is entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits without having to prove that anyone else was at fault. The benefits are not reduced even if the injured worker shared some responsibility for his own injury. In fact, even if the injured worker was entirely responsible for his injury, he is still entitled to collect workers’ compensation benefits.

Not having to prove negligence of another party is one of the great advantages of the workers’ compensation system. However, the damages available are much less than the potential damages in a civil lawsuit. In addition, juries do not determine damages or compensation in workers’ compensation cases. Instead, administrative law judges award workers’ comp benefits according to schedules that have been adopted by the State of California.

Civil Damages vs. Workers’ Comp Benefits

Once again, in a civil lawsuit for negligence, the compensation that a jury awards to an injured person is referred to as “damages.” In most car accident cases, damages can include the recovery of medical expenses, lost wages, and damages for pain, suffering, and emotional distress. If the injury is disabling, expenses the injured person will incur to cope with the disability can also be awarded as damages. A jury can award any amount of damages that is supported by the evidence, as long as the jury’s decision is reasonable.

Workers’ compensation benefits are similar to damages in some ways but very different in others. One key difference is that injured workers are not compensated for pain and suffering. In addition, unlike civil damages, workers’ compensation benefits may not cover emotional distress that is caused by an injury. In some circumstances, however, workers’ compensation benefits may cover a disabling emotional disorder that is directly caused by the accident itself.

Here are some other important differences between car accident damages and workers’ compensation benefits:

Medical Treatment. Instead of reimbursing injured workers for medical expenses they pay, the workers’ compensation system requires an employer to provide medical treatment for work-related injuries up front. Injured workers’ should never be billed for medical expenses related to a work injury.

Lost Wages. Workers’ compensation does not reimburse 100% of an injured worker’s lost wages, but temporary disability benefits at least partially replace lost wages during periods of disability. Civil claims on the other hand, may pay damages for lost wages, but not unless and until a case settles or goes to trial.

Permanent Disability. While no set standards govern a jury’s award of damages for a permanent disability, workers’ compensation permanent disability benefits are based on the extent of the injured worker’s permanent impairment. A disability rating is determined by adjusting the impairment rating to account for the age and occupation of the injured worker. Benefits are then calculated by using a prescribed formula.

Other benefits are also available in workers’ compensation cases, including funds for job retraining (the Supplemental Job Displacement Benefit) and in some cases, death benefits. While injured workers (or the families of deceased workers) might receive less compensation for a workers’ compensation claim than a jury might award as damages in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, injured workers will receive full benefits even when their own negligence would greatly diminish the compensation they could receive in a civil lawsuit.

Combining Claims

When another driver’s negligence causes a car accident, an injured employee can bring both a civil claim against the negligent driver and a workers’ compensation claim. This allows the injured person to have the immediate benefit of workers’ compensation benefits (such as medical treatment and prompt temporary disability payments) and also pursue additional damages against the negligent driver.

Pursuing both cases can be tricky, however, as the workers’ compensation insurance company has the right to file a lien against any civil damages awarded or settlements, so that it can be reimbursed for the workers’ comp benefits it has paid. If an injured worker settles the civil case before all workers’ compensation benefits are paid, the insurance company can offset future benefit payments against the settlement proceeds the worker already received from the civil claim, so payment of future benefits may be reduced or eliminated.

It is important that injured workers coordinate the settlements of their civil claims and workers’ compensation claims to maximize what they receive from each. If different attorneys are handling the two claims, they should work together to be sure that the injured worker keeps as much as possible from both settlements.

Getting Help with Workers Compensation

Whether it is best to seek compensation for car accident injuries under the workers’ compensation system, the civil justice system, or both depends on the facts of each case. To obtain the advice of a Santa Rosa workers’ compensation attorney about how to proceed after a work-related car accident, call Kneisler & Schondel at (707) 542-5132. You can also ask us a question by submitting our online contact form.