Most South Carolina employees who are injured due to a work-related injury or illness are entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits under our state’s workers’ compensation system. South Carolina’s workers’ compensation system allows injured employees to recover benefits regardless of fault. In other words, the fact that a qualified employee suffered a work-related injury is sufficient for that employee to receive benefits under his or her employer’s workers’ compensation insurance without needing to prove that their employer acted negligently in some way. However, section 42-1-540 of South Carolina’s Workers’ Compensation Act prohibits an injured employee from suing their employer in civil court if their injury is covered by our state’s workers’ compensation system (unless the employer wantonly and willfully caused the employee’s injuries). But what if a third party’s negligence is what caused the employee’s work-related injury? Is the injured employee allowed to sue that third party? In South Carolina the answer is yes—the injured party has the option of suing the negligent third party in civil court via a third-party claim.
What are the Key Differences Between Workers’ Comp Claims and Third-Party Liability Claims?
In South Carolina, some of the key differences between a workers’ compensation claim and a third-party liability claim are as follows:
- Third-party claims are filed in civil court rather than within the workers’ compensation system,
- Workers’ compensation claims are filed with the employer’s insurance company while third-party claims are filed directly against the at-fault party,
- Workers’ compensation damages can include payments for medical expenses and disability benefits while damages for a third-party claim can also include compensation for other types of losses such as pain and suffering,
- Fault does not need to be proven in workers’ compensation claims while an injured worker must prove negligence in third-party liability suits, and
- Only certain employees qualify for workers’ compensation benefits while anyone has the right to file a negligence-based lawsuit.
Can a Workers’ Compensation Claim and a Third-Party Liability Claim be Filed Simultaneously?
South Carolina’s Workers’ Compensation Act section 42-1-560 explains that injured employees who qualify for workers’ compensation benefits have the following three options for pursuing compensation for their work-related injuries:
- They may proceed solely against the employer/their insurance provider by filing a workers’ compensation claim,
- They may proceed solely against a negligent third party by filing a third-party claim in civil court, or
- They may proceed against both, the employer/their insurance provider and a negligent third party.
However, injured workers who are interested in filing claims against both their employer and a third party should be aware that, because double recovery is not permitted in South Carolina, the employer’s insurance carrier may be reimbursed from any award recovered by the injured employee in their third-party claim. Therefore, only employees who are severely injured tend to file both a workers’ compensation claim and a third-party claim. Additionally, it is also important to note that the workers’ compensation claim must be completed before the third-party claim, or else the injured employee may be forced to forfeit their workers’ compensation claim.
Proving Negligence in Third-Party Claims
In order to prevail in a third-party claim, the injured employee must be able to prove that the defendant whom they are suing was legally at fault, at least in part, for causing their injuries because they were negligent, reckless, or committed an illegal intentional act. Most injured workers seek to prove their case by showing that the third-party defendant was negligent in some way, that this negligence led to the accident that caused their injuries, that these injuries were foreseeable, and that the injuries caused are compensable.
For example, if a flower store’s delivery boy is out making deliveries when a drunk driver crashes into to him causing him to break his leg, the delivery boy would have a solid third-party claim against the drunk driver. The delivery boy would likely argue that the defendant was acting negligently when he chose to get behind the wheel drunk, that this decision to drive drunk led the accident that caused the broken leg, that a car crash and a resulting broken leg are foreseeable consequences of drunk driving, and that a broken leg is a compensable injury.
Common Examples of Third Party Accidents
While third-party liability claims can arise in connection with any work-related accident, third-party accidents most commonly occur under one of the following situations:
- Slip-and-Fall Accidents: For example, if an employee enters onto someone else’s property in the course of their work and injures themselves during a slip-and-fall accident. If the employee tripped on some torn carpet or slipped on some spilt liquid, they may very well be able to prove that the proprietor had negligently maintained the premises.
- Car Accidents: For example, if an employee is required to drive as part of their job and is out driving when another driver causes a car accident in which the employee is injured. If the at-fault driver caused, or partially caused, the employee’s injuries then they may be sued in a third-party claim.
- Construction Site Accidents: For example, if one company improperly installs a roof on a new building and it collapses on a painter from another company who is working at the same construction site a few days later. Here the injured painter can file a third-party claim against the negligent roofing company because, although they were working at the same construction site, the painter was employed by a different company.
- Defective Factory Machinery: For example, a factory worker loses an eye because the machine he was working with suddenly exploded due to a design defect. In this instance the injured factory worker would likely sue the manufacturer of the machine in a third-party lawsuit for manufacturing the defective product.
Need Legal Advice?
If you’ve been injured in a work-related accident it is a good idea to discuss the possibility of filing both a third-party workers’ compensation claim as well as a third-party liability claim with an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer. As you can see, there are pros and cons associated with both types of claims but a competent lawyer will be able to assess the circumstances surrounding your work-related accident and help you determine what the most beneficial legal course of action would be. To schedule a free consultation with a dedicated Lake Wylie, SC workers’ compensation lawyer, contact the Elrod Pope Law Firm today.
Thomas E. Pope is a Personal Injury, Wrongful Death, and Medical Malpractice Attorney who practices in Rock Hill, Lake Wylie, and Lancaster, SC. He graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and has been practicing law for 31 years now. Thomas E. Pope believes in protecting the injured. Learn more about his experience here.