*IMPORTANT* Keep in mind that you have the right to consult with a lawyer, or have a lawyer represent you, at any step in the process. For more information on consulting with a lawyer please read, Obtaining a Lawyer
What to Expect When Your Case Goes to Trial
Most workers’ compensation cases are resolved by a settlement agreement. Those cases do not go to trial. There are some cases that cannot be resolved by a settlement agreement and those cases must be resolved with a trial. Usually about 5% of workers’ compensation cases go to trial.
A workers’ compensation trial is called a “hearing”. As the word “hearing” is often used to refer to any proceeding before a judge, the term “evidentiary hearing” is more accurate when referring to a workers’ compensation trial.
An evidentiary hearing before a workers’ compensation administrative law judge is a formal proceeding. It is conducted exactly like a non-jury civil trial in a Missouri circuit court. The rules of evidence apply. The employee has the burden of proof on most contested issues in the case. This means that if the employee fails to present at least some admissible evidence on a contested issue the employee will lose on that issue. Failure to meet the burden of proof on certain issues will result in the employee losing the case. Therefore, proper pre-trial preparation of the employee’s evidence is crucial.
It is important to remember that the administrative law judge’s role is to listen to the evidence, rule on objections to the evidence, and decide the case based upon the admissible evidence and the law. The judge cannot help you prepare your evidence. The judge cannot help you present your evidence. The judge cannot explain the rules of evidence to you. Therefore, you will want to have a lawyer represent you in a case that is going to trial. While you have the right to represent yourself at trial, it is never a good idea. For more information about lawyer representation, read Do I Need a Lawyer? on this website.
There are essentially two types of evidentiary hearings in workers’ compensation cases. One is generally referred to as a “hardship hearing”, and the other is generally referred to as a “final hearing”
A “hardship hearing” is an evidentiary hearing requested by an employee or the employee’s lawyer when there is a dispute about medical treatment, payment of temporary total disability benefits, or both. A “hardship hearing” usually results in the judge issuing a “temporary or partial award”, which means that the judge makes a ruling on certain issues, but the case remains on the judge’s docket. However, depending on the facts of the case, the administrative law judge may issue a “final award”, which is the end of the case (unless there is an appeal). For more information on appeals, see Appealing the Decision on this website.
A “final hearing” is an evidentiary hearing requested by any party; a “final hearing” generally results in the judge issuing a “final award”. A final hearing should be requested when all medical treatment has been concluded and all parties have had sufficient time to prepare their medical evidence and other expert evidence for the evidentiary hearing.
The decision of the administrative law judge after an evidentiary hearing is called an “award”. An award is similar to a judgment in circuit court. It is called an “award” even if no compensation is awarded.
What Happens At a Trial?
Whether the evidentiary hearing is set as a hardship hearing or a final hearing, the procedures are the same. All parties and their lawyers appear before the judge and the court reporter. The judge asks the parties if there are any issues they agree on. The judge will read those agreements (called “stipulations”) into the record. The judge will also ask the parties what issues are contested. Those are the issues that the judge will address in the award.
The employee will then present evidence. This evidence will almost always include testimony by the employee. Other witnesses can be called to testify. All witnesses will be sworn by the judge to tell the truth. All witnesses (including the employee) are subject to cross-examination by the lawyers for the other parties. The employee will present medical evidence. This may include certified copies of medical records and testimony from one or more physicians. Usually a physician’s testimony is presented by way of a deposition, although some physicians will appear and testify “live” at the evidentiary hearing. Under limited circumstances, a report from a doctor may be admissible into evidence. If there are objections to the evidence, the judge will usually rule on each objection immediately, although the judge may defer his or her ruling on certain objections and rule on those objections in the award.
After the employee presents evidence, the employer/insurer will present evidence. Any witnesses called by the employer/insurer are subject to cross-examination. The employer/insurer will usually present medical evidence in the form of certified medical records and/or physician’s testimony.
If the Second Injury Fund is a party to the case, the SIF then has the opportunity to present its evidence. (For more information about the Second Injury Fund, please read How the Second Injury Fund Can Help You on this website.) The employee then has the right to present “rebuttal” evidence. Rebuttal evidence is limited to countering or “rebutting” new issues that came up in the presentation of the evidence.
Everything said during the evidentiary hearing (including, but not limited to, all the testimony) is recorded verbatim by the court reporter. All of the exhibits will be marked for identification by the court reporter. Those exhibits admitted into evidence by the judge will remain a part of the judge’s file and the permanent record.
At the conclusion of the evidence, the judge may allow the parties a short period of time (usually 21 days or less) to file “briefs” in the case. These briefs are written statements pertaining to the facts and the law and arguing each party’s position as to how the case should be decided. Usually the judge will not review the file until all the briefs have been filed.
The administrative law judge will issue the award as soon as possible after reviewing all the evidence and considering the briefs (if any). The award should contain detailed findings of fact and rulings of law. By law, the award must be issued within 90 days of the last day of the hearing. The award is mailed to the employee, to the insurance company, and to all the lawyers in the case All final awards are subject to appeal by any party. Some temporary or partial awards are subject to appeal. For more information on appeals, see Appealing the Judge’s Decision on this website.
Understand Your Rights and Obligations: You Have the Right to Consult With A Lawyer
If you have any questions about the issues discussed above, you may consult with a lawyer. If you are unable to locate a lawyer who practices workers’ compensation law, you may wish to contact the Missouri Bar Lawyer Referral Service at 573-636-3635, the St. Louis Metropolitan Bar Lawyer Referral Service at 314-621-6681, the Springfield Metropolitan Bar at 417-831-2783.
It should not cost you anything to consult a lawyer. Lawyers who regularly practice workers’ compensation law offer free initial consultations. For more information, see Obtaining A Lawyer on this website.