Your Rights After a Forklift Accident at Work: Liability and Injury Compensation

Learn about your legal rights after a forklift accident at work. Here’s what you should know about liability and injury compensation.

Forklifts, also called Powered Industrial Trucks (PITs) are used to move materials in almost every industry, including grocery stores, construction sites, and warehouses.

Forklift accident statistics are not good. Each year in the United States forklift accidents kill 200 workers and seriously injure another 20,000 workers.¹

Workers who’ve been seriously injured by a forklift accident are entitled to full compensation from workers’ comp and any other parties who contributed to the accident.

What to Do After a Forklift Accident at Work

The actions you take after a workplace accident can protect your health and ensure you get fair compensation for your injuries.

1. Seek Immediate Medical Attention

Don’t downplay your injuries, even if you think the forklift accident might have been your fault. You are still entitled to workers’ compensation insurance coverage if you’re injured on the job, so long as you weren’t intoxicated or engaging in horseplay.

If your boss or coworker wants to call an ambulance, let them. You might be more severely injured than you realize. The adrenaline rush after an accident can mask pain and other symptoms.

If you’re not transported to the hospital, have someone take you to the emergency department, urgent care, or your personal doctor. Tell your medical providers where and how you were injured. Don’t leave out any symptoms or lesser injuries.

It’s important to get everything in your medical records so the insurance company won’t challenge the severity of your injuries or time off from work.

2. Gather Evidence at the Scene

If you are physically able, try to get pictures of the forklift and the area where the accident occurred, or ask a coworker to take some pictures. If there is blood on the floor or on you, get pictures of that too.

You don’t need to prove fault for a workers’ comp claim. However, if there is a possibility of a lawsuit against your employer,  or a product liability claim against the forklift manufacturer, you’ll need evidence of fault.

Photographs and video are compelling forms of evidence in injury claims and lawsuits.

When you’re able, write down everything you remember about the circumstances leading up to the forklift accident, how it occurred, and what happened afterwards. Try to make your notes as soon as possible, while everything is fresh in your mind.

3. Notify Your Employer of the Incident

Your employer may have been on the scene when the forklift accident occurred. If not, you must notify them as soon as possible. Many states have deadlines for reporting workplace injuries. If you miss the deadline, you may lose your right to workers’ compensation coverage.

You don’t have to disclose medical information to your employer. Just let your employer know how long the doctor says you’ll be off work.

If your doctor hasn’t given you a note to excuse you from work, ask for one. Your boss might take your word for it, but the workers’ compensation insurance company will require justification for any time you miss work.

4. File Your Workers’ Compensation Claim

When you notify your employer of the forklift accident and your injuries, they should provide you with the forms and instructions you’ll need to file a workers’ compensation claim with their insurer.

While many states allow a year or more to file a workers’ compensation claim, you should file your claim sooner rather than later.

However, don’t rush into filing a workers’ comp claim if you suffer serious work injuries and might need to pursue legal action. Take the time to seek legal advice from an experienced personal injury attorney. Your attorney can handle your workers’ compensation claim if that’s the best option for you.

5. Know Your Rights After a Forklift Accident

You have the right to report the forklift accident and your injuries to your employer. You also have the right to file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. Additionally, you have the right to report industrial safety violations that contributed to the forklift accident.

Federal and state laws make it illegal to fire an injured employee for reporting safety violations or filing a workers’ compensation claim.

If you’re unable to work because of workplace injuries, your employer can legally lay you off if it’s too much of a hardship to keep your job open. However, your workers’ comp benefits will continue until you are fit to work. At that time, you may be able to collect unemployment while looking for a new job.

Common Causes of Forklift Accidents

Thousands of companies use forklifts every day. Forklifts and other heavy equipment are usually operated safely, but when they aren’t, bad things can happen.

Forklift accidents at work can occur for several reasons, some of the most common are:

1. Unsafe Operation

Improper turning is perhaps the most common error when operating a forklift. Unlike most other vehicles, forklifts are steered by their back wheels. When the forklift turns on its rear wheels, its rear engine compartment moves with it. An operator who fails to account for the distance can easily swing the rear of the forklift into standing inventory, a coworker or bystander.

Example: Fatally Hit by Forklift

Rod worked for a lumber company with offices in the inventory warehouse. The warehouse had a forklift used to move pallets of lumber.

Rod was walking to his supervisor’s office when a forklift hit him from behind. The forklift operator later said he was backing up and didn’t see Rod.

Rod died from his injuries. His wife and children alleged the forklift driver was negligent, and the storage facility lacked appropriate safety precautions.

Through their attorney, Rod’s loved ones successfully filed a wrongful death claim against the forklift operator and owner of the facility.

2. Forklift Tipping

Tipping can occur when a forklift is overloaded, when it is driven up or down a steep incline, when carrying an elevated load, or when operated recklessly.

Most forklifts are equipped with overhead guards, or “masts” to protect the driver from falling objects. If a forklift begins to tip over and the driver tries to jump off, the masts can trap and crush the driver between the forklift and the floor.

3. Failing to Chock or Secure the Forklift

Forklifts are often used to load and unload inventory from ships, trucks, and docks. When not in use, operators can engage the brake, but that may not be enough to keep the forklift from moving.

The forklift operator must be sure to “chock” the wheels. Chocking means placing a wedge in front of and behind each wheel to stop the wheel from rolling.

4. Failure to Maintain Equipment

Improperly maintained forklifts can break down in the middle of operation. Sudden, unanticipated stops can cause inventory to dislodge and fall on coworkers or bystanders.

Other accidents include fires started from leaking engine oil, crashes due to worn brakes, and the load dropping when the hydraulics fail.

Training is Required for Forklift Operators

Forklifts are impressive work equipment, weighing three times more than the average car. These big industrial trucks are heavier in the rear, to counter-balance the substantial loads carried on the front.

Forklift accidents are the most common type of heavy equipment accidents in American workplaces.

Federal rules under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state regulatory agencies require workers to be trained and certified before they’re allowed to operate a forklift.

Improper training endangers the forklift operator and other coworkers. When employers fail to provide proper training to their operators, the likelihood of a forklift accident dramatically increases.

Pursuing Compensation for Your Workplace Injuries

Workers’ compensation insurance is the primary source of compensation for most injured workers. Workers who are severely injured by heavy machinery like forklifts may also be entitled to compensation from negligent third parties.

What to Expect from Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ compensation is required to cover all your medical treatment and a portion of your wages until you get back to work. Workers’ comp insurance will pay your medical bills and out-of-pocket expenses, so long as you use a doctor approved by the insurance company.

While you’re in treatment or recovering, workers’ comp pays about two-thirds of your lost wages. If your injury results in a disability, you may also receive a cash settlement award.

Under state workers’ compensation laws, you don’t have to prove the employer caused the accident. Your injury is proof enough to claim workers’ comp benefits. You’re also eligible for benefits if your workplace injury was your fault, so long as you weren’t intoxicated or doing something illegal.

The trade-off is that if you get workers’ compensation, you’re prevented from filing a lawsuit against your employer, unless the employer was grossly negligent.

Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe work environment. If you think you might have grounds to sue your employer for your injuries, consult a personal injury attorney before filing your workers’ compensation claim.

In some states, you automatically waive your right to sue your employer by accepting worker’s comp benefits.

Third-Party Personal Injury Lawsuits

While state workers’ comp laws limit your benefits to medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and a portion of your lost wages, there is no limit to the compensation you can pursue in a third-party lawsuit.

Through your attorney, you can seek compensation for your full lost wages, loss of future income, consortium claims by your family, and an amount for your pain and suffering.

A third-party lawsuit is a claim for damages against an individual or business other than your employer. Unlike workers’ comp, you must prove your injury wouldn’t have occurred “but for” the negligence of the other party.

The two most common third-party lawsuits involving forklifts and other powered industrial trucks are premises liability and product liability.

Premises Liability

A landowner or property manager who is not your employer might be a third party if they contributed to the circumstances that caused your injury.

If a landowner’s negligence causes injuries to a forklift operator, coworker or bystander, they may have a legal basis for a third-party civil lawsuit. Liability might extend to others if their negligence was also a contributing factor.

Other liable parties include those who are contracted to maintain the property or a building contractor whose negligence caused an unsafe condition.

Example: Sinkhole accident

Alex worked in the warehouse of a manufacturing company. His duties included daily operation of a forklift.

Alex was driving the forklift outside of the building when it suddenly fell into a sinkhole. The forklift tipped over, seriously injuring Alex.

Alex was entitled to workers’ comp benefits through his employer, and since a third party owned the land, he also had a legitimate claim against the landowner based on negligent maintenance of the property.

Defective Product Liability

A forklift or other heavy equipment can be dangerous to operate because of a design flaw. If so, the manufacturer can be held responsible for injuries that occurred as a direct result of the flaw.

Any part of a forklift that fails to work right can be a defective product. The person or company who produced the defective product can be held responsible for injuries caused by the product failure.

Case Summary: Worker Awarded $5.27 Million for Forklift Injuries

Terry Wasilewski operated a stand-up forklift at a Rite-Aid distribution center. One workday, Terry was operating the forklift when it caught on a pallet of merchandise in a narrow aisle, crushing Terry’s leg and foot between the forklift and the pallet. The injuries subsequently led to the amputation of Terry’s leg below the knee.

Through her attorneys, Terry sued the manufacturer and Abel Womack, Inc., the company that leased and maintained the forklift.

The litigation took several years, but in the end, the jury found that Terry did nothing wrong and that Abel Womack, Inc. was to blame for Terry’s work-related injury because the company continued to lease a defective forklift.

The jury awarded Terry $5.27 million in damages, including pain and suffering.

Wrongful Death Liability

When a forklift accident results in the death of a bystander or other non-employee, the family members can file a wrongful death lawsuit against the equipment operator and their employer.

Wrongful death cases can be complicated. The action is usually filed on behalf of the deceased person’s estate. The burden is on the estate to prove that the forklift driver or the driver’s employer did something wrong, or failed to behave responsibly in a way that caused the death of the injured person.

How to Get Maximum Compensation

If you’ve survived a forklift accident with minor injuries, you’re one of the lucky ones. Workers’ compensation is required to cover all your medical bills and a portion of your wages until you get back to work.

If you expect to make a full recovery from your work injury, the worker’s comp insurance company may say you don’t need an attorney. The truth is, the insurance company is not interested in what’s best for you, and there’s a very good chance you are being shorted on your wage replacement benefits.

Workers’ comp insurance companies are notorious for miscalculating wage replacement benefits, and the mistakes are never in the worker’s favor.

Most forklift and heavy equipment accidents result in serious and often disabling injuries. Permanently injured workers are typically entitled to significant disability settlement awards, in addition to their wage replacement benefits.

Disability settlements are high-dollar claims. The insurance company will do whatever it takes to terminate your injury claim or reduce your disability settlement.

Insurance companies routinely offer lower settlements to injured claimants who are not represented by an attorney. The same goes for third-party cases involving serious injury.

Whether it’s a defective product, premises liability, or wrongful death claim caused by a forklift accident at work, an experienced personal injury attorney is essential. Your attorney will have the tools and experience to win against the negligent company’s army of corporate lawyers.

Even after a common work injury, there’s too much at stake to face the insurance company and corporate lawyers by yourself. Most injury attorneys offer a free consultation. There’s no cost to find out the value of your claim and what an experienced personal injury attorney can do for you.

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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 >>