Compensation for a Back Injury at Work: How to Prove Your Case

Learn how to file a successful back injury claim with worker’s comp. See what kind of compensation to expect for back pain and other back injuries at work.

Back injuries affect more than 600,000 American workers annually, to the tune of more than $50 billion each year.¹

With an aging workforce and increasing medical costs, the frequency and economic impact of on-the-job back injuries will continue to rise. Lower back injuries are extremely common and debilitating for workers.

Workers’ compensation claims in most states are handled by insurance companies, through policies purchased by your employer. Insurance companies exist to make money for the insurance company, not to pay claimants like you.

You may work for a great company with terrific management, but once you file your workers’ comp claim the insurance company will be in control.

Filing a Successful Workers’ Comp Back Injury Claim

Injured workers are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Those benefits pay for your medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses, costs of transportation to and from treatment, and approximately two-thirds of your lost wages.

Get Immediate Medical Treatment

If you’re stricken with a sudden back injury, seek medical care right away. This is not the time to show how tough you are.

If your supervisor wants to call an ambulance or send you to the company nurse, don’t argue. You may have serious damage to your back that will be made worse by continued activity.

Don’t wait to see if your back will feel better in a few days. The insurance company will use any delay in seeking medical treatment against you and may even deny your claim by arguing the injury didn’t happen on the job.

Report the Incident Promptly and in Detail

The workers’ comp process begins when you first report your injury to your employer or designated supervisor. If you’re seriously injured and hospitalized, you may not be able to complete any accident paperwork until you’re stable.

Be specific when describing your back injury. Some states, like Virginia, have workers’ compensation standards that exclude general back injuries or injuries from repetitive motion. If you report that you were lifting heavy objects all week and now your back is killing you, your claim may not be covered.

Regardless of your state’s workers’ comp laws, try to be as specific as possible. For example:

“I was lifting a box of parts into the delivery truck right after lunch on Tuesday when I felt something pop and tear in my back on the left side near my belt line. It immediately hurt so bad I couldn’t stand up straight and felt sick to my stomach.”

Beware of Pre-Existing Conditions

It’s important to repeat the circumstances of your work injury to every medical provider who examines you. Don’t assume your medical records already have the latest information.

Details of the circumstances around your injury are especially important if you have any pre-existing conditions that affect your spine, as many workers do. If you know about a pre-existing condition, don’t hide it.

However, don’t be surprised to learn after your injury that you’ve got some age-related deterioration in your back.

Make sure your doctors know your injury occurred at work, and that you didn’t have acute symptoms before the work-related activity that caused your injury.

How Much Compensation to Expect from Worker’s Comp

Workers’ compensation insurance will pay all your injury-related treatment and therapy costs, and a portion of your lost wages. Some state worker’s comp programs also offer vocational benefits to help you get back to work. Workers’ comp will not cover your full wages, and there is no monetary recovery for pain and suffering.

Your weekly wage benefit will be roughly two-thirds of your average wages from the previous year. Worker’s comp wage benefits are not taxable, so you might not see a big drop from your regular take-home pay.

Your total compensation will depend on your workers’ compensation disability category.

Definition of Workers’ Comp Disability Categories

  • Temporary Total Disability completely prevents you from working for a limited amount of time.
  • Temporary Partial Disability prevents you from doing some, but not all, of your job duties for a limited amount of time.
  • Permanent Total Disability prevents you from ever returning to work, whether for your current employer or another employer.
  • Permanent Partial Disability is a permanent injury that partially impairs your ability to work.

When your doctor has determined you’ve reached Maximum Medical Improvement, meaning your injury won’t get better with further treatment, or you’re rated with some level of disability, the insurance company may require you to undergo an Independent Medical Exam (IME) to verify your back injury impairment rating.

Most states offer a lump-sum settlement for total or partial permanent disabilities. The settlement is calculated using your weekly workers’ comp wage amount, the medically-determined impairment rating, and the state’s schedule of compensation for various body parts and functions.

Example: Worker’s Comp Back Injury Settlement

Ray ruptured two discs in his lumbar spine at work that left him with chronic lower back pain. His weekly wage benefit is $1,000. He has a permanent partial disability with a 50 percent impairment rating. In Ray’s state, a permanent back injury pays a maximum of 500 weeks’ worth of wages for 100 percent impairment.

Ray’s impairment rating is 50 percent, so he is entitled to 250 weeks of his $1,000 weekly wage benefit for a total lump-sum worker’s compensation settlement of $250,000.

Filing a Personal Injury Lawsuit Against Your Employer

With a workers’ compensation claim, you won’t have to prove your employer was at fault for your injury, just that you were injured on the job. The trade-off is that in most cases you are blocked from filing a lawsuit against your employer.

However, there are circumstances when you can bring a third-party injury claim against a negligent employer.

If you are severely injured, or your injury happened because of your employer’s gross negligence, immediately contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney to discuss your case.

Employers have a legal duty of care to protect their employees from undue harm and physical injury in the workplace. The workplace can include not only your employer’s primary place of business, but also construction sites, customer business locations, storage facilities, or anywhere you do your job.

Normally, an injured employee is limited by the state’s workers compensation law to filing a workers’ compensation claim. Still, there are circumstances where it’s possible to file a separate negligence lawsuit against an employer.

Showing that an employer is simply negligent is not enough for a successful injury lawsuit. The proof must show that the negligence rose to a level of “gross negligence,” or that the employer displayed a “wanton disregard for the worker’s safety.”

Employers must take reasonable actions to ensure workers’ safety and keep the workplace free from dangerous conditions, such as removing spilled liquids, snow, ice, and debris from the work area.

Safety measures can include employer-provided training in proper lifting techniques. Where necessary, employers should provide their workers with protective equipment, back braces, lifting belts, and lifting mechanisms.

A successful lawsuit against your employer can provide significantly more compensation for a severe injury because you can seek compensation for all your damages.

Unlike workers’ compensation claims, compensation awarded under a personal injury lawsuit can include payment of all medical, chiropractic and therapy bills, all injury-related out-of-pocket expenses, all lost wages, and payment for pain and suffering. In especially severe cases, you can also win punitive damages for your injury.

Example: Employer Knowingly Put Worker in Danger 

Susan worked for a local fast food restaurant. As part of her job, she had to carry sacks of frozen potatoes weighing twenty-five pounds from the restaurant’s walk-in freezer to the cooking area. The potato sacks were stored on a freezer shelf ten feet above the floor, and Susan had to climb up a ladder to get them.

Unknown to Susan, three previous employees had been injured by falling from the ladder while descending with the potato sacks.

The shifting weight of the potatoes combined with icy ladder steps caused all three workers’ injuries. The owner was aware of the danger and still directed Susan to climb the ladder to get the potatoes.

One afternoon, Susan was carrying a sack of potatoes down the ladder when she slipped on the icy ladder steps and fell six feet to the floor. She suffered serious injuries to her back, head, and neck.

In addition to filing a worker’s comp claim, Susan retained an attorney and filed a personal injury lawsuit against her employer.

Susan’s attorney argued that her employer’s actions were far worse than mere negligence and rose to a level of gross negligence and a wanton disregard for her safety. The court agreed and found in favor of Susan.

In addition, because evidence showed the employer was aware of injuries to three other workers from falling off the icy ladder, the court also awarded punitive damages.

Reimbursing Workers’ Compensation

Injury lawsuits can take months or years before they finally settle or go to trial. In the meantime, workers’ compensation insurance may pay your medical bills and expenses.

By law, when an injured employee receives a settlement or court award for those same injuries, the workers’ comp insurance company is entitled to pursue subrogation, meaning workers’ comp can seek reimbursement for previously paid medical and wage benefits.

Medicare, Medicaid, or your private health insurance provider may also be entitled to recover injury-related expenses previously paid on your behalf. Your attorney may be able to negotiate a reduction to any subrogation claims against your settlement.

If you’re severely injured or considering a negligence claim against your employer, you’ll need the legal advice of an experienced attorney to recover the compensation you deserve for your lost wages, pain and suffering.

Causes of Back Pain and Work Injuries

Most workplace back injuries are the result of overextension or twisting of the spine from heavy lifting, pulling, pushing, or poor posture while sitting for prolonged periods.

Severe and potentially permanent injuries can come from falls from high places at work or even work-related car accidents.

Back injuries at work are often painful and require extended treatment and recovery periods.

Common workplace back injuries include:

  • Lower back strain
  • Bulging, herniated, and slipped discs
  • Fractured vertebrae
  • Pinched nerves
  • Spinal cord damage

Thousands of Workers Suffer Lifting Injuries

Each year, thousands of workers’ file compensation claims because of lifting injuries. There are no federal regulations governing workplace lifting requirements, so individual employers are responsible for developing their own guidelines to protect workers from lower back injury.

To help employers create guidelines to prevent work-related back injuries, the National Institute for Occupational Safety created a Lifting Equation Handbook. The equation considers several factors to evaluate workplace lifting such as the worker’s body and hand positions, load weights, and the duration and frequency of lifting tasks.

Workplace lifting injuries occur from sudden trauma or a cumulative strain on the worker’s muscles, tendons, or ligaments over time. The majority of lifting injuries affect the lower back, defined as the lumbar region.

Why Your Back Hurts

Back pain from a workplace injury can have several causes. It can come from a single act, like lifting a box that’s too heavy, or from a gradual, persistent strain on back muscles, ligaments, and the disks protecting your vertebrae.

Repetitive motions, such as lifting, pulling, pushing, loading, and even sitting improperly can eventually cause your back to weaken or become strained.

Common back injuries affect these structures:

  • Discs: The spinal column is composed of twenty-four moving vertebrae and nine fixed in place. In between each moving vertebra is a fluid-filled pouch called a disc. Discs act as shock absorbers, separating and cushioning each vertebra. A herniated disc can be extremely painful. Without the cushioning discs, vertebrae rub against each other, and spinal nerves become inflamed, causing pain.
  • Ligaments: Bands of dense tissue called ligaments surround your spine to keep the spinal column in place while allowing it to bend and twist. When the spine is severely overextended, the ligaments can stretch out of place or tear, causing severe pain.
  • Muscles: Your back has its share of muscles extending up and down the spinal column on both sides of the vertebrae. Back muscles help with lifting, pulling, or pushing heavy loads. Like muscles anywhere in the body, overextension, sprains, and tears can happen.
  • Spinal Cord: The spinal column surrounds and protects the spinal cord. The spinal cord has thousands of nerve endings that send messages between the brain and body. A spinal cord injury can be physically devastating and may lead to paralysis or even death.

Back pain can be acute or chronic:

  • Acute pain comes on quickly but lessens within three to six weeks. While acute back pain can be excruciating, it is temporary.
  • Chronic pain continues for more than six weeks. Chronic back pain can be present for years or become permanently disabling.

Treatment for Back Pain

Treatment for back injuries at work ranges from mild (applying hot and cold compresses), to extensive (surgery as a last resort). Your physician may recommend drugs to reduce pain and inflammation, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).

To control severe pain, you may be prescribed narcotic painkillers, such as Vicodin, Percodan, or other powerful medications. Narcotic pain medications can have unpleasant side effects and must be managed carefully due to the high risk of opioid addiction for back pain sufferers.

Additional treatment can include chiropractic care, massage, physical therapy, and whirlpools.

Most injured employees want to get back to work as soon as possible. Surviving on partial wages can be stressful and frustrating; however, failing to follow your prescribed course of treatment, or returning to work before you’re ready can delay your recovery.

Back Injuries at Work 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 >>