UPDATED: NOVEMBER 20, 2019
Article by Daniel A. Levy, Esq.
We do a lot of car accident cases, but when someone is injured while on the job, it adds an additional layer of complexity. In fact, we were recently in front of the Appellate Division on this exact issue. And it is no wonder that many clients are confused about how the New Jersey worker’s compensation laws apply to injuries from car crashes.
As a general rule, when a worker is injured on the job the worker’s compensation carrier will pay for medical treatment for the injuries related to that incident, lost wages, and a modest amount for any temporary or permanent disabilities caused by the incident. But as a general rules with car accidents, your own car insurance will pay for your medical bills and possibly a small amount towards lost wages, and then you would have to sue the person who caused the crash for compensation for pain and suffering and any out-of-pocket losses (like lost wages or property damage that was not paid by your own carrier), and that person’s insurance will be responsible for paying those damages.
The car insurance system and the workers compensation system are simply different in how they handle the various types of claims. What makes it even more complicated is the fact that there is a law in New Jersey that says that the worker’s compensation carrier gets paid back what they spent from the money that an injured worker recovers in a lawsuit. And there is another law that says that money that your own car insurance paid for medical treatment and similar costs does not get paid back and isn’t even told to the jury at a trial.
This inconsistency in the two bodies of laws was the very issue that was in dispute in the case of Lambert vs. Traveler’s Insurance, the case where we argues a amicus curiae for the New Jersey Association for Justice (an aimicus is essentially a “friend of the court” that will argue on behalf of specifically interested group, and in our case that group was NJAJ, an association of hundreds of trial lawyers around New Jersey). In that case, the plaintiff was injured in a car accident while she was on the job. The worker’s compensation carrier paid for medical expenses, lost wages, and partial disability. The worker sued the person at fault for the crash and received a lump sum of the entire insurance policy. Traveler’s, the worker’s compensation carrier, sought reimbursement of all of the funds that they paid out. The worker argued they do get reimbursed, but not for the medical expenses since medical expenses in car accident normally would be paid by car insurance and car insurance is never paid back for those expenses. She also argued that there would be unfairness because according to one interpretation of the laws the worker would have to pay back comp for the medical expenses but would be prohibited from included those costs as damages at trial.
This dispute was not an isolated one. There were many cases in NJ with identical issues and inconsistent results. The Appellate Division in this case, which became a published and binding decision, resolved the dispute. The Court held that the worker’s compensation carrier must pay for the injured worker’s medical expenses. And if the worker sues the person at fault for the accident, then the comp carrier must be reimbursed for those costs, less 1/3 for the attorney fee. They also made it clear that the medical bills, therefore, must be presented at trial for the jury because it would clearly be unfair to require the worker to reimburse the comp carrier while at the same time forbid her from seeking those amounts at trial.