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Can You Receive Workers’ Comp for Natural Disaster Related Injuries?

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Here’s the good news: if you sustained injuries in a natural disaster and you were at work, you may be able to collect workers’ compensation benefits. In some cases, the claim is unambiguous. For example, if you’re a relief worker and you sustained an injury in the course of your job duties, you should be able to collect workers’ compensation benefits. For the most part, if you were physically at work when disaster struck, you might be able to file a workers’ compensation claim.

There has been surprisingly little litigation over the years over natural disaster related injuries. However, there was a case in California decades ago that could serve as legal precedent. In a 1927 Supreme Court Case, a plaintiff’s husband died during an earthquake while he was performing his job duties (janitorial services). The court stated in its opinion that there must be some connection between the injury and employment other than happenstance. The court also referred to the notion of “force majeure,” which is the idea that employers cannot be responsible for “acts of God” like lightning, storms, floods, tornados, and more.

However, in this case, the courts ruled the plaintiff’s husband’s death compensable because an investigation revealed a defect in the building. Had this defect not existed, the building would not have collapsed in the earthquake. As a result, the plaintiff won the workers’ compensation claim. This case highlights some of the issues of workers’ compensation following a natural disaster and also emphasizes the need for a workers’ compensation attorney.

Other Considerations

There are other instances in which the law might be more confusing. For example, what happens if your employer shuts down business operations following a natural disaster? Since you did not experience an injury, you likely will not be able to file a workers’ compensation claim. However, you depend on your job to pay the bills, and a natural disaster can prove to be a financial disaster for some families. Instead of worker’ compensation, you have the following options:

  • The Family Medical Leave Act entitles you to a leave of absence when a natural disaster results in an injury or medical condition that is not work-related.
  • Take a look at your worker classification. If you’re an “exempt” employee, the law requires your employer to pay your full salary when there’s downtime following a natural disaster.
  • Take PTO and vacation. If possible, use your PTO and vacation days to compensate for your lack of work during downtime.

A workers’ compensation attorney can help you understand your legal rights and obligations throughout the process. He or she may also help you discover if there is way to receive workers’ compensation for your unique situation.