Some jobs are more dangerous than others. Sometimes, it’s just a bit of bad luck that results in an injury. Other times, you might suffer an injury through negligence—or your injury is severe enough to affect your ability to work. It’s important to protect your legal rights, and there are several steps you can take to ensure that you don’t lose those rights under New Jersey’s workers’ compensation law.
What is workers’ compensation?
Workers’ compensation provides medical, temporary total, permanent partial, and permanent total benefits to employees who suffer job-related illnesses or injuries. It also provides death benefits to the dependents of workers who die as a result of their employment.
In New Jersey, it’s a no-fault insurance program, which means injured employees receive benefits regardless of who was at fault. This classification prevents an employee from suing an employer for pain, suffering, or damages unless the injury is intentional.
Steps to take if you’re injured at work
The first thing to do is report your injury as soon as possible. Whether it’s an acute injury (a twisted ankle, tweaked back, broken bone, etc.), a cumulative trauma injury (like carpal tunnel), or a disease or hearing loss, report the injury to your supervisor. Companies have different protocols for reporting on-the-job injuries, so check with your company’s HR to learn the procedure. In New Jersey, you must file an injury report within 14 days of the date you were injured, but sooner is better.
You don’t have to give notice in writing—but if you need medical treatment, let your employer know quickly. Note that New Jersey’s workers’ compensation law states that an employer and/or their insurance carrier may dictate the medical personnel to whom an employee must go for work-related injuries.
Prepare a company accident report. Generally, companies prepare these reports; however, if your supervisor won’t sign the report, write a letter that states the facts of your injury and give a copy to your supervisor.
Maintain good records. Keep everything related to your injury/accident including contact you have with supervisors, insurance company representatives, doctors, and union representatives.
What if there’s a dispute?
Unfortunately, sometimes a dispute about the entitlement to benefits arises between companies or insurance carriers and the injured employee. Potential issues include:
- A dispute over whether the injury/illness is work-related.
- The type or extent of medical treatment.
- The payment of temporary medical benefits.
While workers may choose to file a claim petition (pro se) on their own, it’s generally more advisable to work with an attorney, especially if it’s a complex situation. Insurance companies typically provide the legal defense on behalf of the employer.
How does legal representation work?
While not required, legal representation is often recommended for workers who want to file a formal claim. Attorneys may not charge an advanced fee for their services; should the judge award compensation, the attorney fee is usually 20 percent of the awarded judgement and can be paid by the injured worker and the employer and/or the insurance company.
Making a formal claim
Should you decide to make a formal claim within the statutory period—which, in New Jersey, is two years within the date of the injury or the date of the last time you were paid compensation (whichever date is later)—it usually takes about six months for the first hearing before a judge of compensation.
A note about compensation: Compensation includes not only financial payments, but also medical treatments deemed necessary to help in your recovery. If you’re suffering from an occupational illness, like lead poisoning, black lung, asbestosis, hearing loss, etc., you still must file the claim petition within two years.
Most of the time, companies settle formal claim petitions without the need for a trial. If, however, the pretrial stage does not lead to settlement, a variety of people—including the injured worker, medical experts, other witnesses—will give testimony. Once all the evidence is heard, the judge weighs the evidence and makes a decision about whether to award compensation, and how much compensation is fair.
When you can represent yourself
If you’ve suffered a minor work injury, like slipping and falling in the parking lot and:
- Your employer agrees that the injury happened at work,
- You don’t miss much (if any) work from your injury, and
- You don’t have a pre-existing condition (like a back injury from earlier in your life that was present before you tweaked your back again at work),
you probably don’t need a lawyer. But it doesn’t hurt to schedule a consultation with an attorney who specializes in workers’ compensation law so that you can walk through the process of getting compensation, identify any potential problems, and determine whether you can, in fact, manage the case by yourself.
When you should hire an attorney
If, however, you’ve got a more complex case—or you’re facing any of the situations listed below—it makes sense to hire and work with an attorney, because he or she will know what forms to file and what evidence you need, manage deadlines, negotiate more effectively, and write a settlement agreement.
- Your employer denies the claim or delays paying your benefits.
- Your employer’s settlement doesn’t cover all of your medical bills or lost wages.
- You have significant pre-existing disabilities.
- You’re not sure that you’re receiving the right benefits or think there are additional benefits to which you’re entitled.
- The medical injuries are severe enough that you can’t return to the job in which you were injured, they limit what you can do, or they prevent you from returning to work at all.
- You qualify and want to apply for Social Security disability benefits.
- Your supervisor, HR, or other company leadership retaliate against you for filing a claim.
- Your injury resulted from employer negligence, serious employer misconduct, or a third party’s actions.
- You’re unclear about the workers’ compensation process and would prefer to work with an expert with your best interests in mind.
Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against injured workers and leans more in favor of companies and insurers because insurance companies have greater financial resources that enable them to hire teams of highly-trained lawyers. When you hire an experienced attorney who’s well-versed in workers’ compensation law—and who may have familiarity with other cases that involve the company for which you work—you’re definitely moving the odds to your favor.