Your Legal Options After a Catastrophic Work Injury
Anyone can fall victim to a work injury that disrupts their health and independence. Some work injuries are deemed “catastrophic,” which means they prevent a victim from ever returning to their pre-injury state of life. Such catastrophic work injuries can throw victims into physical, emotional, and financial ruin. Unfortunately, catastrophic work injuries are all too common.
Learn about the prevalence of catastrophic work injuries and the legal options you may be able to pursue if you have suffered from one.
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How Common Are Work Injuries?
According to the National Safety Council (NSC), a worker is injured on the job every seven seconds in the United States. That amounts to approximately 510 workers injured per hour, 12,600 per day, 88,500 per week, and 4.6 million per year.
These injuries result in 104 million production days lost, along with monumental expenses in medical bills and lost wages for workers.
What Makes a Work Injury “Catastrophic”?
There is no denying that some work injuries are more serious than others. The three most common work injuries involve the following:
- Sprains, strains, or tears
- Soreness or pain
- Cuts, lacerations, or punctures
While these are the most common injuries, they do not negate the fact that more serious injuries still occur and place a heavy burden on workers and their families every year.
So, what qualifies a work injury as catastrophic?
A catastrophic injury, in essence, is one that is permanent. Such injuries often involve damage to the central nervous system—including the brain and spinal cord—because this system is particularly sensitive and susceptible to permanent damage. However, catastrophic injuries can also involve other parts of the body.
Common examples of catastrophic injuries include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Spinal cord injuries
- Head injuries
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Serious burn injuries
- Loss of vision or hearing
- Organ damage
Suffering a catastrophic injury can cause unbearable pain and suffering not only for the victim, but for their loved ones as well. Additionally, to add insult to injury, most work injuries can be prevented when employers provide a safe and hazard-free environment, as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
While every job has risks, there is no denying that some work environments are substantially more hazardous than others. The infographic below illustrates the most dangerous jobs in North Carolina based on the number of fatal accidents in 2016.
If you have suffered a catastrophic injury at work, it’s important for you to understand that you may have legal options. You do not need to pay for your recovery out of your own pocket. In most cases, an experienced attorney may be able to recover compensation for you to pursue medical treatment and support your family in lieu of your regular work income. There are several different avenues by which to do so.
Most of the time, there are four legal options to pursue after a work injury, including the following:
#1. Workers’ Compensation Claim
The most common way to recover compensation after a work injury is through filing a workers’ compensation claim. While this is the simplest way to recover compensation, it should be noted that this method does not provide as much money as some of the other methods.
So, if you’re suffering from a catastrophic work injury, it may be better for you to pursue another option.
The workers’ compensation process varies from state to state. In North Carolina, workers’ compensation laws are governed by the Workers’ Compensation Act (Chapter 97 of the North Carolina General Laws) and claims are handled by the North Carolina Industrial Commission.
Every North Carolina employer who has three or more employees is required to carry workers’ compensation insurance. There are a few exceptions for employers with the following employees:
- Employees who are “casual” (perform work that is not part of a regular business)
- Domestic servants employed in a household
- Farm laborers in cases where there are fewer than 10 full-time workers
- Employees of the federal government or railroads
The workers’ compensation process works as follows:
- After a work injury, report the injury to your employer immediately, both orally and in writing.
- Identify the insurance carrier for your employer from the Industrial Commission by searching the Insurance Coverage Search System or filing a Form 18 against your employer. This information can also be found after your employer files a Form 19 reporting your injury.
- Your employer’s insurance company should then direct medical treatment. You have the option to petition the Commission to change physicians when good grounds are shown.
- You will also be eligible for lost wages after seven days if your disability continues past 21 days. You will be paid 66 2/3% of your average weekly wage, not to exceed $1,066 per week. You will receive this compensation until you are able to return to work or until 500 weeks passes. If you are disabled for more than 500 weeks, your attorney can petition the Industrial Commission seeking an award of benefits beyond 500 weeks.
#2. Woodson Claim
Another similar method of recovering compensation after a serious work injury is through a Woodson claim. A Woodson claim allows employees to seek damages resulting from an employer's intentional misconduct that is "substantially certain to cause serious injury or death.”
Previously, employees could only recover compensation after a work injury through a workers’ compensation claim. This was known as the “exclusive remedy” rule.
However, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the 1991 case Woodson v. Rowland that an employee may sue their employer outside the workers’ compensation system for job-related injuries when the employer intentionally engages in misconduct knowing it is likely to cause serious injury or death.
Most of the time, Woodson claims involve very serious or catastrophic work injuries caused by an employer’s intentional misconduct. This differs from a typical workers’ compensation claim in that such a claim can involve any on-the-job injury, including one that was purely accidental.
#3. Product Liability Claim
Sometimes, a work accident will result from defective equipment. In this case, it may be possible to file a product liability claim against the equipment manufacturer.
Manufacturers are responsible for sending safe products to the market. The failure to do so—whether by negligence or intentional misconduct—may make the manufacturer liable for any injuries that their products cause.
In general, there are three types of product liability claims, including:
- Design defects: These occur when a product is designed in such a way that it is inherently dangerous for ordinary use.
- Manufacturing defects: A product has this type of defect when an error occurs during the manufacturing stage, rendering the product unsafe to use.
- Labeling defects: Also known as “marketing defects,” these occur when a product lacks safety warnings, instructions, or similar information.
Examples of product liability claims that may arise after a work injury include, but are not limited to, the following:
- A series of truck tires that are defectively manufactured and have a tendency to blowout with undue cause.
- A ladder defectively designed with a high center of gravity, making it more likely to tip over when workers climb on it.
- An electrical panel that has insufficient labeling and fails to warn workers of high voltage risk.
If you have been injured due to defective equipment on the job, an experienced personal injury attorney may be able to help you win your claim by proving the following:
- You suffered an actual injury.
- The product was defective, poorly designed, or did not have adequate warnings.
- The defective product was the cause of your harm.
- You used the product with reasonable care and in the manner intended.
#4. Third-Party Claim
Sometimes, there is someone other than your employer who is responsible for your work injury. In this case, you would file a third-party claim in order to recover compensation outside of the workers’ compensation system.
Examples where this might occur include, but are not limited to, the following:
- You go into work and take an elevator that is located on the job site. The elevator falls and you get injured. You would file a third-party claim against the elevator company for their negligence.
- You are selling items for your company on another company’s job site. A worker for this other company runs you over with a forklift. You would file a third-party claim against the forklift driver and/or their employer.
- You suffer serious injuries in a construction trench collapse on a site that is operated by another construction company. You would file a third-party claim against the construction company in charge of the site for their failure to maintain a safe environment for everyone there.
The main difference between one of these third-party claims and a workers’ compensation claim is that a workers’ compensation claim does not require you to prove fault. This can make the legal process for a workers’ compensation claim faster and easier. However, the payout may be significantly less.
Therefore, it’s in your best interest to contact an experienced personal injury attorney who can walk you through all of your options and determine the best course of action for your unique situation.
There have been a few cases in recent years that explore the benefit of filing a Woodson claim after a catastrophic work injury rather than pursuing one of the other legal options mentioned previously.
Guadalupe Hidalgo, Administratrix of the Estate of Jesus Enrique Hidalgo v. Erosion Control Services, Inc.
Jesus Enrique Hidalgo, the decedent in this case, was fatally injured on the job in July 2016. Hidalgo was employed by Erosion Control Services (ECS). On the date of the accident, Hidalgo was operating a tractor at a construction site in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He was driving the tractor on a slope in one area of the construction site when the tractor started to roll. Hidalgo was then ejected from the tractor and fatally injured when the tractor rolled on top of him.
Hidalgo’s mother filed a complaint on behalf of her son and alleged wrongful death due to ECS’ negligence. The plaintiff alleged that ECS was grossly negligent by “replacing the seat of the tractor with one that did not have a seatbelt, allowing the tractor to operate without a seatbelt, directing Hidalgo to operate the tractor on a slope where it was certain to roll over, and failing to provide proper training to Hidalgo to appreciate the risks of operating the tractor on a slope.”
The plaintiff alleged that ECS’ misconduct was intentional and “substantially certain to cause serious injury or death and proximately caused the death of [Hidalgo].”
Following the accident, ECS received four workplace safety violations from OSHA pertaining to the lack of seatbelt and safety measures for the tractor.
The plaintiff claimed that ECS’ negligence was so egregious it fell within the exception to the Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusivity provision as articulated by the North Carolina Supreme Court in Woodson v. Rowland and therefore Plaintiff could seek damages through a civil action.
Pleasant v. Johnson
The Pleasant v. Johnson case explores whether an injured worker can only recover compensation through a workers’ compensation claim when their injury was caused by a coworker who committed willful and reckless conduct, or whether they can pursue other legal options. The case also explores whether such conduct should receive the same punishment as intentional misconduct.
In this specific case, Bill Pleasant was injured while returning from lunch to the construction site where he and Victor Johnson were working on a project for Electricon Incorporated. Johnson saw Pleasant walking across the parking lot and decided to scare him by driving a van close to him and blowing the horn. Johnson misjudged the distance, however, and struck Pleasant, injuring his knee.
Pleasant, the plaintiff in this case, received disability payments under workers’ compensation and also filed a civil action against Johnson, his coworker, for negligence, asserting he was “willfully, recklessly, and wantonly negligent.”
On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that willful, wanton, and reckless conduct removes a coworker from the workers’ compensation immunity and allows the injured fellow worker a recovery both through workers’ compensation and in tort.
Valenzuela v. Pallet Express, Inc.
In this case, the family of Nery Castañeda Valenzuela filed a Woodson claim against Pallet Express, Inc. for alleged intentional misconduct. Valenzuela was an underage immigrant worker who was killed while working alone on an industrial pallet shredder.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed judgment in favor of the defendant employer, finding insufficient evidence to support the claim that the defendant employer “engaged in intentional conduct substantially certain to cause Valenzuela’s death,” despite the employer’s admission that the manufacturer’s safety guards were intentionally removed from the dangerous machine and that the improperly trained, underage employee was allowed to work on the machine unsupervised.
This case followed a trend that allowed employers to get away with instances of intentional misconduct that resulted in a worker’s catastrophic injury or wrongful death. In order to reverse this trend, the courts must discard the current standard used to evaluate whether employer misconduct falls outside the Act in favor of a gross negligence standard. Otherwise, cases such as Valenzuela can survive summary judgment and employers will continue to avoid liability for tortious misconduct.
Given the complexity of this area of law, and the potentially devastating consequences of a catastrophic work injury, it may be in your best interest to contact an experienced personal injury attorney who knows how to fight for your rights, no matter which legal route you decide to pursue.
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If you or someone you love has been seriously injured on the job, our North Carolina personal injury attorneys are here to help.
Since 1997, countless clients have trusted our North Carolina workers’ compensation attorneys to get them the benefits they need and deserve. Let our respected legal team do the same for you. With multiple offices throughout the state, our firm is prepared to assist you throughout every stage of the workers’ compensation process.
Call Lanier Law Group, P.A. at (855) 757-4204 to schedule a free consultation.