The relationship between personal injury law and workers' compensation law requires careful explanation.
The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division's decision in McDaniel v. Lee shows how the court applied the State's Workers' Compensation Act in a motor vehicle accident case to bar a third-party lawsuit against the plaintiff's co-worker. This is known as the fellow-servant rule, which provides an injured employee's co-workers with immunity from personal injury lawsuits. Although workers' compensation claims are handled differently than personal injury lawsuits, in some cases an attorney can help injured employees pursue both at the same time.
Workers' Compensation v. Personal Injury Lawsuits
Workers injured during the course of employment in New Jersey receive workers' compensation benefits for any temporary or permanent disabilities. This often happens, for example, with construction site accidents.
Though injured employees receive workers' compensation regardless of who is at fault, a plaintiff in a personal injury case must prove negligence to receive damages for pain and suffering, medical bills and lost wages. Workers' compensation claims are less formal, tried by judges and part of an administrative system, whereas civil cases are more formal, tried by juries and litigated in courts.
Fellow Servant Rule
Under the New Jersey Workers' Compensation Act, employees may not sue their employers for workplace injuries. Workers injured on the job may receive workers' compensation payments and benefits, however, without respect to liability for the injury or disability. Also included in this act is the fellow-servant rule, which shields an injured employee's co-workers from being sued for their negligence or other part in an accident that caused the resulting injuries. This rule was recently applied to a New Jersey case.
McDaniel v. Lee
Two Sprint/Nextel co-workers were stopped at a red light, one behind the other, in Newark in 2008. A third-party truck driver rear-ended the second worker two times, causing him to hit his co-worker's vehicle twice. Both co-workers separately filed workers' compensation claims and civil lawsuits against the truck driver and his company, who then sued the second worker for contributory negligence. The attorney who represented both workers for Sprint/Nextel moved to dismiss the third-party suit, but the Superior Court disagreed.
The Appellate Division granted review to determine whether the third-party claim against a negligent co-worker could continue. The court held that since the Workers' Compensation Act bars an employer from being sued for worker injuries, the fellow-servant rule also bars a negligent third-party's lawsuit against a co-worker for indemnification and contribution to his or her co-worker's injuries. The Appellate Division then ordered the dismissal of this third-party lawsuit against the plaintiff's co-worker.
Pursuing Third-Party Claims
There are times when a third-party may be at fault for an injured worker's injuries during the performance of work duties. When this happens, personal injury attorneys can help an injured employee file a third-party claim at the same time that the workers' compensation claim is proceeding. Simultaneously pursuing both options helps to fully protect the worker's right to compensation for injuries and for pain and suffering, medical expenses and lost wages.
If you were recently involved in a workplace accident and are now temporarily or permanently disabled, contact a New Jersey personal injury attorney experienced in investigating whether a third-party may be at fault for your injuries. A lawyer who knows how to handle both workers' compensation and personal injury matters could be invaluable to your case.