Introduction to Iowa Workers’ Compensation Trials

In this post I am going to give an overview of Iowa Workers’ Compensation trials. Work comp trials are technically arbitration hearings. However, I am going to refer to the arbitration hearings as work comp trials because I think that terminology makes more sense and is easier to follow for most people. In this post I will be talking more about the rules and logistics relating to the trials. In future posts I will get more into trial strategies.

The Commissioner’s office is currently holding work comp trials in eight locations. The headquarters of the Workers’ Compensation Commission is located in Des Moines, and 8 to 10 trial slots are available almost every day. The Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioners (the work comp judges) also travel around the State to seven other locations. The current “road” trial locations are: Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Iowa Falls, Ottumwa, Sioux City and Waterloo. Deputies generally are assigned to go to a “road” location for an entire week, and generally two trial slots are available for each day that week. Trials are currently held in each road location one or two weeks per month. The schedule for the road trial locations is generally very full, and it can be difficult to get a trial slot in one of the road locations. Therefore, if my clients are agreeable, I will frequently schedule trials in Des Moines because this allows the cases to be tried and decided more quickly. The schedule of all the work comp trials in Iowa is located here.

Another factor in favor of scheduling a trial in Des Moines is that the Des Moines trial slots are definite, and you only have to schedule one slot. By contrast, trials in the road location are scheduled two deep in each slot. Additionally, for each road location trial you schedule both a back up date and a primary date. When you are in the back up slot you don’t get to go to trial unless the case scheduled ahead of you ends up settling. If your back up hearing does not get to proceed to trial, your next scheduled slot is what is called the primary hearing, and you will definitely get to be heard on that date. A lot of people find that the additional time to travel to Des Moines for a single definite trial slot outweighs the uncertainty regarding the back up slots, and the longer waits to get to trial.

The rooms where the trials are held vary quite a bit, but generally the work comp trials are held in conference room like settings.

PEOPLE AT THE WORK COMP TRIALS. Work comp trials are heard and decided by one of the Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioners. There are currently eleven different Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioners that regularly hear and decide cases. There are no juries at the work comp trials. A certified court reporter is also at each hearing to take down a transcript of all of the testimony that is given. In most workers’ compensation cases there is only one defendant, but in various situations there can be more than one defendant, and each defendant will usually have their own defense attorney. The defendants are entitled to have one representative sit through the entire trial. Defendants usually will have someone attend the trial, but it is not uncommon for a defendant not to have anyone at trial other than their defense attorney. The injured worker and his attorney will also of course be at the trial.
Each side may have witnesses that will testify at the trial. Generally, any witnesses other than the claimant and the one representative for each defendant will have to wait outside the courtroom except when they are testifying. This process is called sequestering the witnesses, and the general idea is to prevent witnesses from being tempted to tailor their testimony to other things they may have heard if they had the opportunity to sit through the testimony of other witnesses.

Workers’ compensation trials have a number of rules to speed up and streamline the presentation of the cases.

First, the parties have to exchange all of their proposed exhibits 30 days before the trial date. There are various other rules relating to producing potential exhibits as soon as they become available, but as long as these rules are followed, almost any documents will be accepted into evidence without having to have witnesses lay a foundation and authenticate the documents as would be required in a civil trial. This saves a tremendous amount of time at the trials. Therefore, most of the medical records, and reports of the experts will simply be offered and accepted into evidence, and the Workers’ Compensation Deputies will study them later.

Second, the parties are required to fill out a hearing report form that sets out most of the issues that arise in each workers’ compensation case, and requires the parties to state whether specific issues are admitted or contested. The hearing report form is located here.

Third, the Workers’ Compensation Deputies are all attorneys. Most of them had experience litigating workers’ compensation cases before they became Deputy Commissioners. The Deputy Commissioners also have very heavy case loads, and are very familiar with the issues that come up in workers’ compensation cases. This expertise allows them to process and understand very complicated cases more quickly than a jury or non-specialized judge could.

Fourth, the workers’ compensation trials only last three hours, and each side is only allowed to use half of that time. Therefore, the attorneys need to carefully prepare their cases to make sure they can present the case in a complete and clear fashion within the time limits.

Fifth, because the Workers’ Compensation Deputies are so experienced, any opening and closing statements are very short and this saves a lot of time.

Sixth, post-trial briefs are widely used in the Iowa workers’ compensation system. Generally, the Work Comp Deputy will set a time limit for filing the brief, and a page limit. The parties are generally required to mail their briefs to the Commissioner’s office on the same day. Therefore, each side has to try to anticipate the issues and arguments of the other side. The general purpose of the post-trial briefs is for each party to explain the key evidence in the case, and set out the law and factual arguments that they believe should prevail. In some ways the post-trial briefs take the place of longer opening and closing statements that you would typically have in a civil case.

TRIAL DECISIONS. The Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioners base their decisions on the evidence presented at hearing in the form of exhibits and testimony, and the arguments of the attorneys both at hearing and through the post trial briefs. The Workers’ Compensation Deputies write written decisions that explain who wins the case, what benefits should be paid if the claimant wins, and the Deputy’s reasoning for their decisions. Depending on the complexity of the case, the decisions can run from 4 to 40 pages. The workers’ compensation decisions for the last several years can be seen here. The Deputy Workers’ Compensation decisions are very conscientious about their jobs. They realize that the parties want to find out the result as soon as possible. However, the Deputies do have heavy caseloads, and therefore it can sometimes take several months for a decision to be issued after the trial.

If either side is unhappy with the eventual decision they can ask for a rehearing hearing, or pursue an appeal. These options will be discussed in future posts.

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