Injured Workers and Hired Help: When the Homeowner Has to Pay

Learn when a homeowner is liable for injuries to workers. Here’s what you need to know if you’re a repairman, landscaper, nanny, housekeeper or any other worker in a private home.

Every seven seconds a worker is injured on the job in the United States. The most common injuries are from overexertion, contact with machinery or materials, and slips and falls.¹

While most injured workers are hurt while working at commercial job sites or businesses, many are harmed while working in a private home.

Experts estimate there are at least 1.8 million domestic workers in American homes, generally providing housekeeping and child care services.²

In addition to domestic workers are millions of construction workers, including those who work “off the books” offering home repairs, roofing, painting, and other services to homeowners.

When you’re injured on the job, you expect compensation for your medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. If you’re hurt working in someone else’s home, your options may be limited.

Can I Apply for Workers Compensation?

Injured workers can rely on workers compensation insurance to cover their medical bills and a portion of their lost wages while they recover from the injury. But, there’s a catch.

Not all employers are required to provide worker’s comp to employees, and many states exempt certain classes of workers from eligibility for workers comp, including:

  • Domestic workers
  • Temporary workers
  • Freelance or independent contract workers
  • Undocumented workers

Even though you’re working in a private home, you may still be eligible for workers comp when your wages are paid by:

  • A company, such as a residential cleaning service
  • A general contractor, like for building repair or construction jobs
  • An agency, for example, a pet sitting or home health care service

Laws vary from state-to-state. Find your State Workers Compensation Office here.

Understanding Homeowner’s Insurance

Most property owners carry homeowner’s insurance. This covers damage to their home and provides financial protection in the event of a lawsuit.

If you’ve been injured on someone else’s property, it helps to understand some terms used by attorneys and insurance companies.

Negligence happens when a property owner fails to act responsibly or does something no reasonable person would do. For example, failing to replace a missing stair rail.

Liability means responsibility. The negligent homeowner is usually liable for the injured victim’s damages.

Damages for accident victims can include medical costs, related out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Direct and Proximate Cause is the immediate reason something happened which caused harm to another person. The icy porch steps caused you to slip and fall, breaking your arm.

Domestic workers and other business people like contractors, landscapers, postal workers, and others on the property to conduct business are classified as invitees.

Family members, social visitors, and friends who drop by for coffee are classified as licensees.

Whether you’re an invitee or a licensee, you have the right to expect a safe environment in someone’s home. Every state has premises liability laws that require property owners to do everything reasonably possible to protect visitors from situations that could lead to injury.

Homeowner’s Insurance Injury Coverage

Most homeowner’s policies have two kinds of coverage for injuries:

Med-pay coverage will only pay medical expenses for covered injuries. Much like no-fault auto insurance, the injured person doesn’t have to prove the homeowner was negligent. Med-pay coverage limits generally range from $1,000 to $5,000 and won’t pay for pain and suffering.

Liability coverage is meant to protect the homeowner from lawsuits filed by persons who are not members of the household. The insurance company will not pay liability claims unless there is proof that homeowner negligence was the direct and proximate cause of your injuries.

Liability coverage limits typically range from $100,000 to $300,000.

Injury Claim Exclusions

Most homeowner’s insurance policies won’t pay for injuries caused by:

  • Intentional acts, such as sexual abuse
  • Injuries caused by automobile accidents
  • Injuries to persons engaged in criminal acts
  • Injuries to members of the household

Let’s say you’re a nanny, driving the kids to soccer practice in the homeowner’s car. If the car is rear-ended, your neck and back injuries should be covered by the at-fault drivers auto insurance, or the uninsured motorist coverage on the car you were driving.

The homeowner’s insurance policy would not cover your injuries from the car accident.

Homeowner Obligations to the Insurance Company

Home and auto insurance policies are legally binding contracts between the insured and the insurance company.

Homeowners are contractually obligated to notify the insurance company whenever someone is hurt on the property or if they are named in a lawsuit, and to cooperate with the insurance company’s investigation.

Proving the Homeowner’s Negligence

Even though you were “invited” onto the property to work, you still have to prove the homeowner is at fault for the circumstances that led to your injury.

You’ll have to prove the homeowner was negligent. To win a lawsuit, you’ll have to show:

  1. The homeowner knew a dangerous condition existed or could exist.
  2. The homeowner had time to repair the danger but failed to do it.
  3. The dangerous condition was the direct and proximate cause of your injuries.
  4. You didn’t know the condition existed or couldn’t avoid it.
  5. You didn’t contribute to the circumstances that caused your injury.
  6. You didn’t agree to assume the risk of injury.

Example: Liability for Rotted Porch Floor

Mike ran a home repair and renovation business. He was hired to install a security door on the front of Susan’s home.

While bringing his toolbox onto the front porch to begin removing the old door, some rotted planks gave way under his feet. Mike fell through the porch floor, breaking an ankle and straining his knee.

Susan knew the porch floor was in bad shape but decided to have the door replaced first. She always came in by the side door to avoid the rickety porch.

Susan failed to repair the rotted porch floor and failed to warn Mike to stay off the porch. Therefore, homeowner negligence was the direct and proximate cause of Mike’s injuries.

Evidence is Crucial to Your Claim

Even for simple Med-pay claims, you’ll need to prove your injury occurred on the property and prove the extent of your injuries. For liability claims, you’ll also need to collect evidence that shows the homeowner’s negligence.

Medical Care: Without medical records of your injury, you don’t have a claim. If you’re hurt, tell the homeowner and get immediate medical treatment.

If you may be seriously injured, call 911. Electric shocks, falling from a roof, head injuries, or being drenched by a pot of boiling water are all examples of situations requiring emergency care.

Shock and distress can mask pain and other symptoms of severe injuries. If you aren’t taken directly to the hospital, have a medical evaluation as soon as possible.

Refusing or delaying medical treatment will make it very hard to build a strong claim later.

Insurance Information: Ask the homeowner for their insurance company’s contact information. If they don’t volunteer the information up front, you may have to file a lawsuit.

Witness Statements: Witnesses can be game-changers in an injury claim. If you have cooperative witnesses, get their contact information. Ask them to write down what they saw and then sign and date their written statement.

Photographs: If you’re able, try to take photos or video of where you were injured, and details of what caused your injury. Also take pictures of your injuries as soon as possible, and throughout your recovery.

What if I’m Working “Off the Books?”

Imagine you’re a licensed electrician laid off from your full-time job. Your neighbor needs help building an addition to his home. He offers to pay you “off the books” to install all the electrical outlets in his new room. You could use the cash.

What happens if your neighbor drops a two-by-four on you or the electrical circuit you’re completing shorts out and burns you? What will happen if your injuries are serious enough to keep you from working for days, weeks, or even months? Suddenly, that cash may not seem so important.

If your injuries occurred at your previous full-time job, you’d probably get worker’s compensation benefits. Working on your own, you won’t have the protection of worker’s compensation insurance to tide you over financially.

The money from this off-the-books job may sound enticing, but before taking the job, you should stop and think about the possible consequences. Your only option will be to seek compensation from your neighbor, or through his homeowner’s insurance policy.

If you were injured grabbing the wrong wire, that’s not your neighbor’s fault. His Med-pay coverage could pay your medical expenses up to the coverage limits, usually $5,000 or less. Med-pay won’t pay for lost wages or pain and suffering.

If you’ve suffered more serious injuries and can prove your neighbor was negligent when he dropped that two-by-four on you, you can file a lawsuit against him. His insurance company will hire an attorney to defend him against your claims.

Working “Off the Books” Complicates Injury Claims

This is where it gets tricky. Remember, you’re working off the books. When you hire an attorney to sue your neighbor, the attorney will ask for copies of your medical records and bills, receipts for out-of-pocket expenses, and proof of your lost wages.

Herein lies the rub. If you’ve been paid cash “under the table” you don’t have a pay stub, and probably haven’t paid state and federal income taxes on that money.

You can’t sue for lost wages without income verification. Good luck getting a wage statement from the guy you’re hauling into court.

In the lawsuit, you’ll have to explain how you came to be hurt at your neighbor’s home, and your neighbor will tell his side of the story.

Keep in mind that if you haven’t paid income taxes, or if you’ve been collecting unemployment insurance since you were laid off, you may inadvertently incriminate yourself if you admit that you’ve been working and collecting unreported wages.

When to Hire an Attorney

If you have recovered from soft tissue injuries like minor cuts and bruises, sprains, or muscle strains, you can probably handle a Med-pay claim directly with the insurance company.

You won’t be able to recover anything for pain and suffering, but you can pursue compensation for your medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages.

Send your demand in writing with copies of all your medical bills and records, and a statement of your lost wages.

Look like a pro with our sample Personal Injury Demand Letter.

If your injuries are more severe and costly, like broken bones, severe burns, head trauma, or any permanent injury, you’ll need an experienced attorney to convince the insurance company to pay the full value of your claim.

Don’t be afraid to have a confidential consultation with an attorney to discuss your work status and compensation options. There’s no obligation, and it costs nothing to find out what a good personal injury attorney can do for you.

Homeowner Liability for Workers Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>