“After severance, can I sue my employer for workplace stress?”

Question: I was employed for five years as a Vice President at a company in Illinois. The job entailed extraordinary stress, including working for five managers who were overseas during a five-year timeframe.

For the very first time, at the end of the fifth year I had very serious health problems, including a third degree heart block (which means that my heart stopped for eight seconds, during which I technically died for a moment), for which I ended up requiring quadruple bypass surgery and implant of a cardiac pacemaker. I am still on medications.

After this was completed, I was laid off in a corporate downsizing and given a two-year severance package. Two years of severance seems to hardly be fair compensation for what has happened.

Harvey
Overland Park, Kansas

Answer: Dear Harvey: Your question is a really good one; you may, indeed, have some recourse:
 
a. Severance agreements generally require employees to give up all rights and claims against their employers. A basic part of every severance agreement I’ve ever seen – and I have seen thousands – is a requirement that the employee release the employer from any and all rights and claims, and promise not to sue the employer for anything “under the sun.” For this reason, I believe it is highly likely that you have already given up any right you may have had to sue your former employer.

b. However, you may very well have a right to file a claim for “Workers’ Compensation” benefits. In most states, employees cannot sue their employers for “injuries sustained in the course of employment.” That’s because most states have set up a separate system for those who are injured “on the job,” which is called “Workers’ Compensation.” This is a totally separate system of courts and judges who do nothing else but administer these claims. Usually, attorneys who practice this kind of law do so exclusively, and do not handle other kinds of legal matters. The key here is this: a claim for Workers’ Compensation is NOT a claim against your employer, which you’ve given up, but instead a claim against a kind of insurance company, which you have not “released.” It is possible – depending on the laws in Illinois – that you can still file such a claim. 
 
c. While I don’t think “workplace stress” claims are usually successful, and you may have missed a deadline to file, you should speak with a Workers’ Compensation attorney. I strongly suggest you contact an attorney who practices Workers’ Compensation law in the state of Illinois to determine if he or she believes you may have a potential claim. You should be able to find one either by contacting the local bar association referral services, or putting into Google’s search engine “Workers Compensation” and the name of the town or city in which you worked.

At a very minimum, it is good that you are out of that very stressful situation. You have my hopes and prayers for better health in days and years to come.

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Best, Al Sklover

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