Generally, you can’t sue your employer for work-related injuries. If you are injured while engaged in work activities, and the nature of those work activities contributed to the injury’s development, Iowa workers’ compensation insurance provides that you will be compensated for your medical expenses, lost wages, and other damages. You are only entitled to receive payments through the workers’ compensation system; you cannot elect to file a lawsuit instead or in addition to collecting workers’ comp.

Why Can’t I Sue My Employer?

In order to set up the system of workers’ compensation benefits, both workers and employers gave up some rights in exchange for some benefits. Employees gave up the right to sue their employers; in exchange, they are able to receive benefits without proving that the employer was negligent in causing their injuries.  In Iowa, like most states, employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance for the benefit of their employees, who may or may not have adequate medical coverage and wouldn’t otherwise receive compensation for lost wages due to injury. In exchange, Iowa law restricts the rights of workers to file lawsuits against their employers if they are injured at work.

Exceptions to the Rules: When Lawsuits Are Allowed

There are a few important exceptions to this general rule. An employee may file a lawsuit in district court for gross negligence if his or her injury was caused by the intentional, reckless, or illegal actions of the employer or its agents.

For instance, if your supervisor punches you in the face because he was angry with you for losing an account, breaking your jaw, you likely have good standing to sue your employer for a full range of damages rather than being limited to recovery under the workers’ comp system.

Employees may also sue their employers for non-physical injuries, such as emotional distress, that aren’t within the scope of workers’ compensation valuation, and for physical and emotional injuries related to instances of harassment or discrimination in the workplace.

An employee who is subjected to vicious sexual harassment over a period of years and suffers psychological and physical injuries will likely be allowed to file a lawsuit rather than being limited to recovering compensation for medical care and wages under the workers’ comp system.

Some examples of legal claims that might arise under these exceptions are

  • Battery: being hit by someone or something
  • Assault: threatening or attempting a battery
  • False imprisonment: confining you against your will (without legal authority)
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress: traumatizing you with objectively terrible conduct or harassment
  • Fraud: lying to you that caused you to suffer injury
  • Defamation (libel/slander): publication or utterance of false statements about you that cause you harm
  • Invasion of privacy: generally, causing harm through sharing your private information or photos of you
  • Conversion: taking your property
  • Trespass: improperly entering your property or using it without your permission

Lawsuits for Third-Party Liability

The workers’ comp system does not prohibit employees who are injured at work from filing a lawsuit against third parties that are responsible for the injuries. In many states, an employee who is successful in a lawsuit against a third party may have to pay back their employer or their employer’s insurance company for the workers’ compensation benefits that they have paid out on the employee’s behalf. As an alternative, the employer or the insurance company may join in the lawsuit against the third party and try to obtain compensation for the cost of the workers’ compensation benefits.

For example, if you are injured while working when your company-issued vehicle’s airbags improperly deploy, workers’ comp would limit your right to sue your employer. However, you would be entitled to sue the car manufacturer, distributor, outfitter, and any other appropriate party who may be responsible for the faulty performance of the vehicle.

Appeals After Administrative Decisions

You cannot appeal your workers’ compensation benefits award until you completely exhaust the administrative process, including appeals, and all parties have taken every step they can to settle a claim. Once you have done so, however, you are entitled to use the civil court system to appeal a denial or termination of benefits. This process is very complicated; we recommend you retain an attorney familiar with the Iowa workers’ compensation system before taking your claims to the courtroom.

If you’ve suffered a work-related injury, you may be entitled to recover workers’ compensation benefits or pursue litigation for your personal injury claims. Contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney for help evaluating your case and your potential legal options.

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