When Are Workplace Injuries Not Covered by Workers’ Compensation?

Posted on Wednesday, December 16th, 2020 at 9:53 am    

Most people automatically assume if they are injured at work that they’re covered by their state’s workers’ compensation laws. And, for the most part, that’s true. If you slip and fall or suffer some other accident at work, in most cases, you should be covered. If you are loading very heavy items into a cart and wrench your back, you should be covered. If a forklift tips over or malfunctions, and you are injured, you should be covered.

In workers’ compensation cases, there is no need to prove fault. Generally, if you’re hurt while doing your job, you should be entitled to have all your medical bills paid by your employer’s insurance company and approximately 2/3rds of your wages while you are temporarily totally disabled for up to a maximum of 500 weeks, or if you become permanently or partially disabled. Permanent partial disability benefits are paid for a specific number of weeks. 

As with every rule, though, there are many exceptions. There are a few situations where your injuries will not be covered – in some cases, because your employer is not required to be insured, in other cases because of some misconduct on your part, and in others, because the injury you suffered is not considered to have arisen out of your employment.

The Employer is not Required to Carry Workers Compensation Coverage

Unless the employer has more than three employees who are regularly employed in the business, then they are not required to carry workers compensation coverage. 

The most common scenario where this issue comes up is with construction companies. The employer will actually have many more than 3 workers who regularly work for the employer, but the employer will claim that everyone is an independent contractor. Oftentimes, this is actually not the case. When you analyze the situation, you begin to realize that all of those “independent contractors” are treated no differently than an employee would be treated. They show up at a specific time every day. They are required to follow the rules and directions of the boss. They generally work nowhere else except the employer. The employer supplies all of the equipment for the job. No matter what they employer calls them, these workers are employees and must be covered. 

So what happens if the employer has no coverage? In North Carolina, unless the employer was somehow at fault, you are out of luck, unless there was a general contractor over the employer who was insured. Sometimes you can find coverage there. 

In Virginia, if there was no insurance with the general contractor, the Commonwealth of Virginia maintains something called the Uninsured Employer Fund which is designed for just such situations. They will stand in the place of the insurance company and pay the claim. Of course, after the fact, they will go after the employer and attempt to recoup their payments. 

NOTE: Just because your employer does not have more than 3 employees in the business DO NOT ASSUME that he does not have coverage. IF the employer ELECTS to purchase coverage, then even though the employer was not REQUIRED to carry coverage, that coverage will invoke all of the rights of the Workers Compensation Act and if you are hurt on such a job, you will be covered by the Act. 

We particularly tell construction workers who own their own business and do construction work themselves: Please, please buy coverage for yourself and your workers if you can find a way to afford it. We have seen too many lives ruined for failure to purchase coverage. 

Pre-existing conditions

If a pre-existing physical condition is the sole cause of your injuries and it’s the pre-existing condition that causes the injury, then you may not be covered. For example, if an employee has severe osteoarthritis, that condition can damage and cause pain in various joints such as the hands, hips, knees, and spine. If you are working and your knee buckles – even though you didn’t fall or didn’t come into contact with any object – then a physician may conclude that nothing at work caused your knee pain – your knee pain is due to your arthritis and nothing else. 

This situation is different than if you slip and fall because the floor is wet and then hurt your knee. A doctor might say that part of your pain in your knee is due to the osteoarthritis – but since the wet floor caused your fall, you can claim workers’ compensation benefits. The good news about pre-existing conditions is that it is rare that a claim will fail because of them. This is because in Virginia, so long as th the injury caused a sudden mechanical change in your body, then if any portion of your disability comes from that injury, no matter how slight, then the entire injury and treatment for it is compensable. 

Many other conditions may be caused by events at work that are personal to the worker and weren’t caused by work. In these cases, the employer will contest your right to workplace benefits.

Personal risk

There are some injuries that the workers’ compensation board or courts may consider non-compensable because they’re due to a personal risk that the employee assumes. For example, if a worker starts a fight with a co-worker, especially if it is over personal issues between them, then that worker will not be able to file a work injury claim for all the burn injuries and respiratory injuries he suffers. The victim of the assault, however, would normally have the right to file a workers’ compensation claim – provided that the reason for the fight was not personal, but work-related in some way. 

Deviations from work

Some employees who are working for their employer take time off to run personal errands. For example, a salesperson who is on the road may take time out to go shopping for something. If that worker is then injured (suffering bone fractures) by falling on the parking lot asphalt, the employee may not be able to claim worker’s compensation benefits to treat with an orthopedist to mend the broken bones– because he/she was injured while deviating from his/her work assignment. The trip to the retail store was not related to his/her work and thus would not be compensable.

Recreational injuries

Recreational activities include activities that are not generally considered part of a workers’ daily job requirements. These activities can include company softball games or outside picnics where workers mingle with other people. Injuries while playing a game or just serving food at a picnic do happen. 

Whether the injury is considered related to work often depends on a few factors such as:

  • Was the participation in the recreational activity mandatory? If everyone at work has to partake in the activity, that suggests that the employer should be responsible if you’re hurt while participating in the recreational activity.
  • Does the participation affect your employment? If the employer makes clear that participation makes you seem like a team player and that participation can help you be promoted, then those factors indicate that the activity was work-related
  • Did the employer provide the source of the recreational activity? These days, many companies offer gyms where employees can work-out. If the employer provides the ability to do the recreational activity – and encourages you to work out for your health – those factors suggest the activity is work-related.

If, on the other hand, a few workers decide to get together for a few beers after work and one worker trips and falls while carrying the beers, that would likely not be considered to be in the course of employment.

Virginia Claims: Failure to Prove the Injury Arose from a Risk Associated with Employment-No Such Requirement in North Carolina

Virginia, unlike North Carolina, has an additional requirement that the injury must be caused by a risk associated with employment. The most classic scenario is a fall down the stairs. In North Carolina, this would be considered a compensable work accident. 

In Virginia, a risk analysis is conducted. What was the employee doing at the time of the fall down the stairs that created a risk that was different from someone in the public who also fell down the stairs? If the answer is nothing, there is no risk of employment and no compensable case. On the other hand, if the employee had his or her hands full with work-related items that made it hard to see or grasp the railing? Or did the employee have some slippery substance on the bottom of his or her shoes that was from a factory floor? Were the stairs themselves somehow defective, such as worn out or missing anti-slip guards on the stairs? Those all would qualify as risks of employment.  

Another example would be someone who wrenches his or her back while performing work duties, such as picking up a light item off of a shelf, turning around and placing it in a box.  The worker is not lifting anything heavy, but suddenly feels a sharp, severe pain in the back resulting from that specific movement at work. In North Carlina, particularly with respect to back injuries, all that is required is that the injury occur as a result of a “specific traumatic incident” of the work required. Accordingly, it would likely be compensable. 

 In Virginia, such a case would not be found to be an “accident” or a result of a risk associated with employment. Anyone could lift a light item off of a shelf and suffer this same injury. It would therefore not be considered a risk of employment and therefore not a compensable accident in Virginia. 

Willful Misconduct, Intoxication and Violation of a Safety Rule

If you engaged in willful misconduct at the time of the accident such as intentionally inflicted injury, you may not recover. Also, if you were found to have been intoxicated at the time of the accident in either Virginia or North Carolina, you may not recover anything. Note that intoxication does not only mean being over the legal limit of .08 BAC in VA.  If fellow employees or supervisors testify that they smelled alcohol on your person on the day of the accident and you were exhibiting signs of intoxication, then that may be sufficient to say you were intoxicated. The intoxication must be found to have been a proximate cause of your accident. 

In North Carolina, the intoxication need only be found to have caused the employee to “lose the normal control of his or her bodily or mental faculties, or both, to such an extent that there was an appreciable impairment of either or both of these faculties at the time of the injury.” 

Insofar as violation of safety rules, to bar a claim in Virginia, the employer must show that the rule was one that was enforced across the board by the employer and that its violation was a proximate cause of the accident. So if the employer at a roofing company says you failed to follow the well-known rule about tying off with a safety rope and harness when working at heights, and yet that same morning your boss and co-workers also alighted and worked on the roof without tying off, that would be a rule that was not generally enforced. They cannot apply it for the first time to you, in order to prevent you from receiving benefits. Another commonly brought up rule is failure to wear seat belts in auto collision.  If the employer had such a rule but never informed the injured worker about it, and never enforced it, that rule may not be used selectively against an injured worker. 

In North Carolina, violation of safety rules by the injured worker will typically not bar or prevent a claim, but will reduce the weekly compensation payment to the injured worker by 10%. 

Each case is different. You should not assume that you don’t have a case. There may be good reasons why you can assert a claim. The best course of action if you are injured at work or doing anything that might be work-related is to speak with an experienced North Carolina or Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer. Often, there is a very fine line between having a viable claim and not having a claim. 

North Carolina and Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer Joe Miller Esq. understands when injury accidents at or related to work are compensable. He’s helped thousands of injured and ill workers get the compensation they deserve. Attorney Joe Miller has been fighting for injured workers for more than 31  years. For help with any work injury claim, speak with an experienced North Carolina and Virginia workers’ compensation attorney. You can reach attorney Joe Miller, Esq., at 888-667-8295. or complete our  online contact form to schedule an appointment. You can also complete our New Electronic Case Review. It’s a new way of communicating with clients that we’re offering – to allow workers to contact us remotely and submit a claim for consideration, even after hours.