I Want to Sue My Employer for Negligence, Why Can’t I?

One of the more common things I hear from injured workers is the desire to sue their employer in court for negligence.  Many times, an employer’s failure to fix a safety concern is the cause of an on the job accident.  On countless instances, I have heard some variation of “I told my boss that the floor was too slippery” or “they knew the machine was unsafe.”  Generally, when somebody in society is hurt due to the fault of another, we can sue the negligent party and recover damages including pain and suffering.  Workers’ compensation does not work this way.  The question becomes “Why?”

The answer goes back to the origin of workers’ compensation.  The first modern workers’ compensation system was implemented in Germany in 1871.  Many other Western countries instituted some form of workers’ compensation in the decades to follow.  Idaho passed the Idaho Workers’ Compensation Act in 1917, a little over 100 years ago.  Most US states adopted a workers’ compensation system during the first half of the 20th century.  These changes in the law overlapped with the changes occurring with the Industrial Revolution.  It was during this period that machinery became heavier and more automated, but also labor unified and demanded better conditions.  As described in Upton Sinclair’s famous book, The Jungle, industrial accidents and injuries were common around the turn of the century.  As a result, employers were being pulled into court more and more to defend negligence cases. Likewise, injured workers bringing lawsuits were taking a gamble that they could prove the negligence of their employers, and many failed to recover because their own contributory negligence or shear lack of ability to prove a fault.  Employers disliked being in court and potential large judgements; employees disliked the all or nothing uncertainty the legal remedy provided.  This brings us to the “Grand Bargain.”

The so-called “Grand Bargain” allowed injured workers to receive sure and certain benefits, but injured workers would no longer be able to sue their employers in court for negligence related to an on the job injury.  Employers would not have to worry about being pulled into court for negligence, and workers insured that they would receive compensation should they be hurt while working.  Idaho Code § 72-201 provides the description of this compromise:

DECLARATION OF POLICE POWER. The common law system governing the remedy of workmen against employers for injuries received and occupational diseases contracted in industrial and public work is inconsistent with modern industrial conditions. The welfare of the state depends upon its industries and even more upon the welfare of its wageworkers. The state of Idaho, therefore, exercising herein its police and sovereign power, declares that all phases of the premises are withdrawn from private controversy, and sure and certain relief for injured workmen and their families and dependents is hereby provided regardless of questions of fault and to the exclusion of every other remedy, proceeding or compensation, except as is otherwise provided in this act, and to that end all civil actions and civil causes of action for such personal injuries and all jurisdiction of the courts of the state over such causes are hereby abolished, except as is in this law provided.

As a result, an injured worker is generally not able to sue his or her employer in court related to an on the job injury.  As with many laws, there are exceptions to the rule (such as an intentional assault by an employer) but for most injured workers the exclusive remedy is limited to workers’ compensation.  Should you have questions about whether your case allows you to sue your employer, or if you have questions about workers’ compensation in general, your best bet is to contact a knowledgeable attorney.