California Workers’ Compensation Claims: Facts and Figures From Injured Workers

California has its own rules and procedures when it comes to workers’ compensation claims. To get a better idea of the current trends and practices in California, we asked our readers about their recent experiences with the workers’ compensation system.

How Many California Workers Hired a Lawyer?

The majority of injured workers in California hired a lawyer to represent them in their workers’ comp cases. Of all injured workers in our survey, 72% had hired a lawyer. This is probably due to the fact that workers’ comp lawyers are paid on a "contingency fee" basis. This means that, rather than charging an hourly fee, the lawyer takes a percentage of any settlement or award that the worker receives. Contingency fees make it feasible for most workers to hire a lawyer because they don’t have to pay attorneys’ fees out of pocket.

Workers with repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) were the most likely to hire a lawyer. While 80% of workers with RSIs hired a lawyer, only 69% of workers involved in one-time accidents hired a lawyer. This could be because workers’ comp claims involving one-time accidents are typically more straightforward than those involving repetitive motion injuries.

With a one-time accident, the worker typically needs to prove only that the accident happened—for example, with witnesses who saw the accident happen, cameras that caught it on tape, or time records verifying that the worker was at the site of the accident when it occurred. Repetitive stress injuries, on the other hand, can be more complicated to prove because they develop over time. These workers must be able to show that their conditions were caused by their job duties, rather than their activities outside of work.

What Are the Most Common Workplace Injuries in California?

The most common type of work injury in California is one that results from a one-time accident; 66% of our readers were injured in this manner. Repetitive stress injuries were the second most common type of injury, with 28% of readers reporting one. (A repetitive stress, or repetitive motion, injury is one that develops over time as a result of repetitive job tasks—for example, carpal tunnel syndrome caused by several hours of typing each day.) A small portion of our readers, 6%, had work-related stress claims. With this type of claim, the worker has suffered either a mental or physical injury due to stressful conditions at work.

Of those who were involved in one-time injuries, slip-and-fall accidents were by far the most common cause of injury; 41% of workers were hurt in slip-and-fall accidents. One worker, for example, injured her back and foot when she fell while delivering radios to her coworkers during a city event. The second most common type of accident, coming in at 15%, was being struck by an object in the workplace. For example, one worker was injured when a nearby sign was dislodged by the wind and struck her in the back.

Less frequently, California workers were equally likely to have been injured in a car accident and an accident involving machinery or tools (8% each). Lifting injuries weren’t too far behind (7%).

For all types of workplace injuries, the most common body part injured was the back. More than half of California workers, 57%, filed a workers’ comp claim for a back injury. Hand and arm injuries came in second, followed by foot and leg injuries, and then neck injuries. Hearing and vision injuries were relatively uncommon, as were injuries to internal organs.

What Are Common Causes of Delay in California Workers’ Comp Cases?

A common complaint among injured workers is that the workers’ compensation process takes too long. Workers' comp cases in California typically take anywhere from one to two years to resolve. We asked our California readers whether they experienced any delays in their cases, and if so, what the causes were.

The most commonly reported cause of delay is one that typically can’t be helped: 36% of the time, the workers’ comp case was in a holding pattern because the worker was still receiving medical treatment. The full extent of a worker’s impairments can’t be determined until the worker has reached "maximum medical improvement"—the point at which the treating doctor finds that the worker has improved as much as he or she is going to with treatment. Only then can a doctor evaluate the worker for a permanent disability, which translates to a dollar award in most states. (To learn more, see Should I Settle My Workers’ Compensation Case?)

Another common cause of delay was the insurance company moving too slowly: 17% of workers reported this reason. This isn't surprising; insurance companies are notorious for their slow and bureaucratic procedures. Because their goal is to minimize payouts on workers’ comp claims, they don’t have too much to gain by streamlining the process for workers to collect benefits.

Similarly, 17% of workers reported that their cases were delayed because their lawyers moved too slowly. This can happen when a lawyer has too heavy of a workload or the lawyer isn’t updating the worker on the status of the case often enough.

Other causes of delay included difficulty finding a lawyer to take on the case (7%) and difficulty negotiating with the insurance company (7%).

Advice From Injured Workers

We asked our readers for the one piece of advice they would give to injured workers just starting out with a workers’ compensation claim in California. Here’s what they had to say.

File a claim right away. Several workers recommended reporting your injury to your employer and filing a workers’ compensation claim immediately. Not only will this preserve your right to collect benefits, but it will also allow you to begin collecting benefits sooner. (See How to File a Workers’ Compensation Claim in California for more information.)

Get better medical care. Another common recommendation was to push for better medical care, especially for workers who are treated by insurance company doctors. Finding an unbiased doctor who is familiar with the workers’ comp system—and knows the right terms to use—can be invaluable to your workers’ comp claim. (To get a second opinion, see How to Change Treating Doctors in Your California Workers’ Comp Case.)

Document everything. Another tip from workers was to keep good records throughout the case, including pictures of what caused the accident, statements made by the insurance company, and copies of your medical records. (For more information on record keeping, see Records to Keep in Your Workers’ Compensation Case.)

Be patient and reasonable. Many workers recommended being patient throughout the workers’ comp process and not settling until you are offered a fair amount. On the other hand, because benefits are limited in workers’ compensation cases, workers also recommended not holding out for an unreasonable sum. (To get a better idea of what amounts you should receive, see How Much Can I Get for My Workers' Compensation Case in California?)

About This Report

The data referenced above is from Martindale-Nolo Research's 2015 workers’ compensation study, which analyzed survey responses from readers who had recently experienced a work-related injury or illness and had researched hiring a lawyer. The names of any quoted readers have been changed to protect their privacy.

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