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Workers Comp Lawsuit

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In 2013, the Court of Appeals handed down a decision affecting how rulings in workers comp affect a third-party lawsuit in Supreme Court.  This is still a significant case in 2020.

How Workers Comp Decisions Affect a Personal Injury Lawsuit

In that case, a sheet of plywood struck a delivery worker in the head. The worker suffered injuries. The plywood had fallen to the sidewalk from a building.  Following the accident, the worker filed for workers’ compensation benefits.  He also began a personal injury lawsuit in Supreme Court. Importantly, the insurance carrier in the workers comp case argued to suspend benefits.  At a hearing, the parties argued the worker’s disability status.  The Judge found the worker to have no disability as of January 24, 2006.  The worker appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Board Panel. The Board Panel agreed with the Law Judge.

In the worker’s separate personal injury lawsuit, the defendants tried to take advantage of the workers comp ruling.  The defendants asked the judge in that case to prevent the worker from arguing a disability past January 24, 2006.  The defendants used a legal concept called collateral estoppel. Collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, is a legal doctrine that prevents a person from arguing an issue which has already been decided. The defendants argued that the workers comp decision had already resolved the issue of disability after January 24, 2006 in the civil lawsuit. The defendants argued that the worker was barred from arguing the issue again.

The Lower Court’s Decision

Unfortunately, the trial court granted the defendants’ request.  The judge found that the worker already had a fair chance to argue disability before the Board. The judge ruled that the workers comp decision applied to the civil lawsuit. From there, the worker appealed and the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision.  The defendants then appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals is New York’s highest court.  Similarly, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s decision. It reversed the Appellate Division. The Court of Appeals’ initial decision was extremely damaging.  It limited a worker’s ability to get the compensation they deserve after a workplace accident.  It also cut against the purpose of the workers’ compensation law.  The law was meant to ensure a worker’s medical treatment is covered. It is also meant to compensate injured workers for lost wages.  The Court of Appeals’ initial decision would cause worker’s to second guess filing for workers’ compensation benefits. It would make workers fear how workers comp could negatively affect their lawsuit. The decision went against the entire purpose of the workers’ compensation system.

The Court of Appeals’ Take on Workers Comp Decisions Affecting a Lawsuit

new york court of appeals

As a result, the Court of Appeals allowed the parties to re-argue.  The New York State Trial Lawyers Association, the New York State Bar Association, and other organizations, submitted briefs. Upon re-argument, the Court of Appeals reversed its prior decision. It agreed with the ruling of the Appellate Division that the workers comp decision did not bar argument in the civil lawsuit as to disability. 

The Court held that decisions of agencies are entitled to collateral estoppel. But, only when the issue in a civil case is identical to the issue already decided by the agency.  The Court also found that there must have been a full and fair opportunity to argue the issue. Here, the workers comp decision did not directly apply to the civil lawsuit.

Additionally, the Court recognized the different standards between civil court and the Workers’ Compensation Board.  It held that the focus of disability in a workers’ compensation case is ability to work.

The Court also noted that a personal injury lawsuit is much broader in scope than a workers comp case.  Its purpose is to make an injured party whole. Damages in a personal injury action include future medical costs.  But, they also include pain, lost income, and suffering.  In light of this, the Court found the worker had the right to litigate the broader issue of his continuing disability in his personal injury case despite the workers comp ruling.

Why This Matters

Thankfully, this was a very good decision for workers.  Although a workers comp decision can impact a civil lawsuit, certain criteria must be met for collateral estoppel to apply. If you have questions about a workers comp case and how it affects your lawsuit, contact the attorneys at The Platta Law Firm for help.