In what could be seen as a rare win for the claimants’ bar in Tennessee, the state Supreme Court upheld a $50,500 award of attorney fees, an amount that is almost double the workers’ compensation benefits paid to the injured worker.
Central Transport and its insurer, Cherokee Insurance Co., must now pay claimants’ attorney Drew Saulters, who represented John Earheart, a truck driver that injured his hip in 2016 then was fired two years later. The high court affirmed a ruling by the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, which had upheld the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims.
“As the trial court outlined, the attorney took numerous depositions of lay witnesses and the treating physician in order to prove employee was entitled to the requested benefits. Employer offered nothing to contradict this proof,” the appeals board wrote in its February 2023 decision. The Supreme Court’s Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel agreed in a Nov. 22 opinion.
Court decisions in favor of injured workers and their attorneys in Tennessee are considered far less common than they were a decade ago. Claimants’ lawyers have argued that Tennessee lawmakers in 2014 overhauled the state’s comp laws, reducing some benefits and limiting attorney fees so much that many lawyers have left workers’ comp practice altogether or have declined to take on appeals. Comp appeals to the state Supreme Court fell sharply, from more than 80 per year before the 2014 law was passed, to just four per year after that, the state Bureau of Workers’ Compensation has reported.
The Earheart vs. Central Transport case is also unusual in that it involved multiple time periods and what the claimant said was a retaliatory termination, even though the driver had participated in light-duty and charity work as required.
It all began in August 2016, when Earheart said he injured his hip when he slipped while making deliveries. His treating physician performed surgery to repair a torn labrum, the cartilage surrounding the hip socket. The worker was placed on light-duty jobs until he was unexpectedly terminated in late 2018, the Supreme Court explained.
Earheart continued to experience pain and in 2019 filed a petition for additional medical treatment and benefits. The workers’ comp trial court ordered the employer to provide panels of physicians to treat his hip and back problems. Two years later, Earheart filed another petition for temporary wage benefits covering the period from when he was fired until he found new employment.
The day before a scheduled hearing in 2021, Central Transport agreed to pay $22,000 in benefits and $5,500 in penalties. The employer had not provided a neurologist as a treating physician had recommended. Also, a federal retaliatory termination suit was pending.
A year later, in September 2022, the compensation claims court found that the transport company wrongfully denied temporary total disability payments. The court also ordered the employer to pay $50,505 in claimant’s attorney fees and costs, noting Saulter’s “extensive efforts” at proving the worker’s case.
Central Transport and Cherokee Insurance appealed, arguing that they had paid the benefits voluntarily, without a hearing or a court judgment.
The Appeals Board upheld the attorney fee award.
The appeal was not considered frivolous, as the employee had suggested, but the trial court made no error in awarding the fees – fees that are allowed by state law, the high court panel found.
“The workers’ compensation statutes and case law are clear that a court’s determinations regarding the wrongful denial or failure to timely initiate benefits can be made at either an expedited hearing or, later, at a compensation hearing,” the Appeals Board noted. “In short, we conclude that employer’s agreement to pay the benefits and the penalty did not insulate it from a later determination by the trial court that attorneys’ fees and costs are appropriate due to a wrongful denial or failure to timely initiate benefits.”
Earheart’s treatment by his employer may have been affected by the circumstances or miscommunication: A physician had noted that, while the man’s pain was likely due to the injury and surgery, he had reached maximum medical improvement. When Earheart reported for work, the employer apparently had not been informed that light-duty restrictions had been lifted, and no delivery route was available.
The driver took approved time off and returned to the light-duty charity job for three days. He was then notified in December 2018 that he had been terminated for failing to show up at work for those days.
Attorneys in the case could not be reached for comment.
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