Workers' comp cases often end in a settlement between the employee and the employer's insurance company, but when the parties can't resolve their dispute informally, a hearing might be necessary.
A workers' comp hearing has some things in common with a trial—but it doesn't take place in a courtroom, there's no jury, and different rules apply. Like a civil trial, a workers' comp hearing requires all parties to be present before a judge, and it involves introducing evidence in the form of documents and witness testimony. At the end of the hearing, the case is submitted for a decision.
By the time you have a hearing with a workers' comp judge, there likely will have been quite a few other proceedings in your case, including an independent medical examination, expert depositions, and a mediation to try to settle your case. Your hearing may be your last chance to make your case to a judge and recover all of the workers' comp benefits to which you're entitled.
You and your lawyer need to attend the workers' comp hearing, as does the insurance company's lawyer and, of course, the workers' comp judge.
Other people may also be there, including a court reporter (who will type a transcript of the hearing), witnesses who will testify, a representative from your employer, and an insurance company representative.
Most workers' comp hearings take a few hours. Complicated cases can take a few days.
The primary purpose of a workers' comp hearing is to present oral and written evidence that will allow the judge to determine whether to award you workers' comp benefits.
At the hearing, you and the insurance company will give the judge documents to review (called "exhibits"), including:
Most states have specific rules about what you can give the judge. For example, you typically must let the insurance company's lawyer know what records you plan to submit and provide the lawyer with copies in advance of your hearing. In addition, each side can object to any exhibit they believe should not be admitted into evidence. If you don't follow the rules, the judge may not accept your documents as evidence.
You will usually testify at the hearing. Typically, your testimony will include:
Before you testify, the judge will put you under oath to tell the truth. Your workers' comp lawyer will then ask you a series of questions.
Once your lawyer is finished questioning you, the insurance company's lawyer will have a chance to ask you additional questions (called a "cross-examination"). The judge might also ask you questions.
In many workers' comp cases, the injured worker is the only one to testify at the hearing. Doctors usually give their testimony at depositions before the hearing.
But sometimes you or the insurance company may want to present other witnesses, such as coworkers who saw your accident, the insurance adjuster who denied your claim, or a vocational expert who can evaluate your ability to find other work. Both you and the insurance company will have a chance to ask these witnesses questions.
At the end of your hearing, all of the evidence is submitted to the judge to review. You may also have the opportunity (as will the insurance company) to submit written arguments in support of your case. The judge will typically reach a decision within 30 to 90 days.
If the judge rules against you, you can appeal the decision. The appeal process and filing deadlines vary from state to state, but they may be as short as a week or two.
As discussed above, a workers' comp hearing is a legal proceeding that follows specific evidentiary rules and requires a knowledge of which exhibits to present as evidence, when to make objections, how to conduct examination and cross-examination, and what arguments to advance in support of your claim, among other things.
An experienced lawyer can make all the difference in helping you prepare for and prevail on your claim at a workers' comp hearing.
In addition, a workers' comp lawyer can represent you in all of the proceedings that take place before you ever get to your hearing. For example, a workers' comp lawyer can challenge any factual mistakes in your IME report, negotiate for you at your settlement conference, and represent you at your pretrial hearing.
Hiring a workers' comp lawyer usually won't cost you anything out of pocket. In most states, workers' comp attorneys charge a percentage of your benefits if you win your case, and nothing if you lose.