We were fortunate that when the COVID problems developed the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner had already made several technology changes so that the system was in place to allow the injured workers and insurance companies to conduct remote trials.
One of the changes is that the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner had gone to an electronic filing system in 2019. The electronic filing applies to all documents in the system, including the paperwork for trials.
In Iowa work comp cases the parties are required to cooperate to put together a set of joint medical exhibits for the case.
Each party also puts together a set of their own exhibits. On the Claimant’s side this generally consists of expert reports, and supporting documentation for any disputes relating to issues such as the weekly rate, time missed from work, etc.
The parties are also required to cooperate to fill out a Hearing Report. The Hearing Report outlines the areas of agreement and disagreement in the case and helps the Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioners identify what areas of the case need to be adjudicated.
Since all the exhibits and hearing reports are electronically filed, the Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioner preceding at the trial already has them and these documents do not have to be hand delivered.
The second technology was that video trials were an option in the Iowa Workers’ Compensation system since 2017. However, the video trial option was used very rarely until the COVID outbreak. The video conference system used by the Iowa Workers’ Compensation system is similar to Zoom in most respects. The early trials were a little difficult as the lawyers became educated on the system. Additionally, the video conferencing company had suddenly become much busier because of COVID, and there were a few issues as the company ramped up the scale of court and administrative trials that it was handling all over the country. However, the system is currently working smoothly and reliably.
I think that even after the COVID problems are behind us that the video work comp trials will continue to be used widely because of the convenience and efficiency.
The convenience of participating in a trial by video, rather than driving to a trial location is obvious.
The efficiency factor is that the video trials allow the 13 Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioners to hear more trials, and still have more time to work on issuing trial decisions and ruling on pre-trial motions.
The Iowa Work Comp Commissioner is headquartered in Des Moines. Currently, four workers’ compensation trials are scheduled in Des Moines every day.
The Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioners also currently travel to seven different cities to conduct trials. The seven satellite locations are Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Fort Dodge, Ottumwa, Sioux City, and Waterloo.
Each of these cities have a Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioner conducting trials there between one week a month and one week every two months.
The satellite locations were traditionally more convenient for the parties in some respects. However, as the Iowa work comp system has gotten busier and busier the convenience of having a trial in one of these road locations has decreased sharply. In each of the road locations there is only one trial slot scheduled in the morning and one trial slot scheduled in the afternoon. Each of these trial slots is scheduled four deep. This means that there are four trials scheduled in the morning and four trial scheduled in the afternoon. If the number one trial is settled, then the number two trial must go forward. If the number two trial is settled the number three trial must go forward. If the number three trial is settled the number four trial must go forward.
Additionally, if all the afternoon cases settled, but there are two morning cases, one of the morning cases must be available to be tried in the afternoon instead.
Many workers’ compensation cases do end up settling shortly before trial. Therefore, when a Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioner is at one of these road venues, they frequently only end up hearing one or two trials during the week. The traveling Deputy Commissioners lose time while they drive to and from their remote locations. Additionally, the last minute settlements open up time for the Deputy Commissioners, but no one can work as efficiently from the road as they can from their office.
For myself, being uncertain whether I will get to try my client’s case, and the requirement that I be ready to try the case in either the morning or the afternoon ties up too much of my calendar.
Therefore, for several years I have almost exclusively been scheduling my cases for trial in Des Moines. There are no back ups in Des Moines.
Additionally, another big factor in favor of the Des Moines trials has been that you can get a trial date sooner than you can in the road venues.
I believe there is a good chance the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner will continue to have in-person trials in Des Moines, but the road trial sites will be closed, and if parties do not want to come to Des Moines they can have their trials by video. Eliminating the travel by the Deputies and the wasted time when cases are settled will allow the Commissioner’s office to hear more cases more quickly, and issue decisions faster.