A lot of people wonder why, when they’re injured while working in Vermont (or for a Vermont employer), they are stuck filing their claim with the Vermont Department of Labor instead being able to sue their employer for damages relating to their work injury. It’s true, filing a claim with the Department of Labor is an employee’s exclusive remedy against his or employer after a Vermont work injury. This is often frustrating when you feel like your employer caused your injury, and you want to hold them responsible to the fullest extent possible.
For starters, however, regardless of whether your employer is liable for paying you work comp benefits, you can almost always file suit against a third-party (i.e. someone other than you or your employer) for money damages if they caused your Vermont work injury. In fact, you can be pursuing that third-party lawsuit at the same time as you pursue your Vermont workers’ compensation claim with the Vermont Department of Labor. The benefit of doing both in that situation is that you’ll almost always get paid quicker by filing a Vermont workers’ compensation claim than if you had to go to court against your employer. At the same time, you may be able to recover a larger amount of money from the responsible third-party. Thus, it makes sense to do both: file a Vermont workers’ compensation claim against your employer, and file a lawsuit against the responsible third-party. While your employer’s insurance company may be entitled to some amount of reimbursement out of any damages you recover from the third party, nothing prevents you from filing suit against a third-party who’s responsible for your Vermont work injury. You just can’t sue your employer.
Of course, that begs the question: why can’t you sue your employer in court too? The simple answer is, it’s complicated! In a nutshell, the Vermont Legislature — and states across the country — have decided there should be a tradeoff between employers and employees when it comes to Vermont work injuries, resulting in a system that benefits both the employer and the employee by guaranteeing you certain work comp benefits, but also limiting your employer’s liability. In my next two posts, I’ll get into the specifics of this Vermont workers’ compensation tradeoff.