Workers’ Compensation … Road to Recovery

photo: freedigitalphotos.net

photo: freedigitalphotos.net

Whether you have joked at work about making a claim for a paper cut, or have had a serious work injury, most of us know something about workman’s compensation.  But did you know that Montana has its own Workers’ Compensation Court?  Or that every working person, except an independent contractor is considered an employee under Montana work comp laws?  Did you know that Montana has a no-fault system, meaning the employee doesn’t have to prove the employer did something wrong?  While the work comp laws have a technical and sometimes confusing burden of proof for most employees, the system is not completely unmanageable for someone who wants to navigate through the process themselves.

Established by statute in 1975, the Montana Workers’ Compensation Court is still relatively new.  It was created to provide an efficient and effective system for resolving workers’ comp disputes.  You can learn more about the laws the legislature enacted regarding workers’ compensation by viewing the Montana Code online.  Workers’ compensation statutes are in Title 39 (Labor), chapter 71.

Alright, I think I have a work comp injury; where can I find more information?

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photo: sillydog via photopin cc

Let’s follow Jane Doe.  She recently suffered an on-the-job injury.  She was at work standing on a ladder cleaning out a large vat when she fell and broke her leg.  Now she needs help pursuing her claim, getting her medical bills paid, and recovering her lost wages.

Jane needs to look at how the Workers’ Compensation Court website can help her start the process of filing a claim.  The site offers general information to help Jane get an idea of what the process entails and also provides the forms (in printable format) that she will need to file her claim.  Best of all, this information is FREE!  One suggestion for Jane: click on the Site Map located at the bottom of the homepage and use it as a table of contents to the website.  She might also want to scroll down the site map list to “Navigating Our Website” for useful tips on getting around the site.  (see below)

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At this point, Jane may be saying to herself, this seems like a lot of work!  Am I sure I can even get what I need from work comp?  What Jane needs to know is that workers’ compensation is an exclusive remedy.  Meaning, if her employer carries work comp insurance (most do), the only way an employee can get their medical bills paid and recover lost wages is by filing a work comp claim.

Now that Jane knows this is her only option, she needs to begin researching her next move.  From the Workers’ Comp Court homepage, Jane can see that the court is in Helena.  But she doesn’t live in Helena; what can she do?  Jane should go to the General Information tab on the homepage menu bar.  Here she will find trial dates and deadlines information.  Jane can rest easy because the work comp court has statewide jurisdiction and holds regular trial terms in 5 Montana cities: Billings, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, and Missoula.  These trials are held in each city four times a year.  Whew!  Jane, resident of Great Falls, is covered!

Another great feature that Jane might be interested in is the “Representing Yourself WC-self-help-guide-frontpageSelf-Help Guide,” located under the General Information tab.   Some useful information the guide provides includes:  a brief synopsis of the court rules that Jane must abide by, a list of the requirements for filing a petition to seek benefits, and a summary of what will take place during the trial.  Now Jane has a more complete idea of what she can expect in work comp court.

Okay, so Jane has read through the Self-Help Guide and is beginning to feel more comfortable with her claim.  What other useful information can this website provide?  Of course, a big question weighing heavily on Jane’s mind is how much will she be paid?  For most injured workers this can be the biggest motivator in getting the process moving.  As bills begin to pile up and with no paycheck coming in, disability payments become a necessity.  The workers comp court website includes a link to the compensation rates an injured worker may be paid.  Jane can locate this link by looking under the Legal Information tab and then selecting Compensation Rates from the drop-down.  The rates are broken down by time frame and type of disability (temporary total or permanent partial).  Jane was hurt in 2014.  Using the table (see below), Jane can determine that the maximum amount she can recover for a temporary total disability is $698.00 per week.  The type of disability payment (whether temporary total, temporary partial, permanent total, or permanent partial) will be determined by the court.

WC-compensation-chart-2

Next, Jane may be ready to start filling out her forms.  After looking at the self-help section of the website, Jane knows what the court will expect of her.  But where might she find the forms she needs?  How can she be sure she gets all the forms?  Oh right, THIS WEBSITE!  Forms in a printable version, ready to go for Jane, are located under the same Legal Information tab where she found the compensation rates.  (see below)

WC-court-forms

Jane never imagined it could be this simple!  But she may want to look at some older work comp cases to see how her situation compares.  Jane can find these easily by clicking on the Case Law tab.  But, Jane thinks, there has to be thousands of cases out there.  How will she ever find one that is similar to hers?

WC-topic-search-indexOne option is for Jane to narrow her search using the Topics Index found on the top right of the workers’ comp court homepage.  The index lists various work comp-related issues, such as attorney’s fees, causation, and even injuries like asbestosis.  Although Jane may wonder whether she picked too broad of a topic to look into, she needn’t worry because each topic has a subtopic.  Clicking on a subtopic takes Jane to a list of case law (prior cases that set the standard for the topic) and statutes (the related laws).  Cases are presented in an easy-to-read format and are current through November 2010.  For decisions after this date, Jane can look at work comp decisions by year by clicking on the the Case Law tab and then selecting Workers’ Comp Court Decisions from the drop-down.  Jane can look at cases by year going back to 1993 up through the current year, and alternatively, she can view cases listed alphabetically.

Jane’s second option is to search by keyword.  The search option is tucked away in a couple of spots near the bottom of the website’s homepage (see below) (as well as from the Sitemap’s tips to navigating the website).

WC-search-options

Jane can enter, for example, the terms broken and leg into the search box.  To receive the maximum number of “hits,” she should enter the terms without quotation marks.  This way she’ll receive results that include phrases such as “leg was broken” and “broke his leg” — all which may relevant to Jane.  The initial list of results is for all of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.   To narrow results to just the workers’ comp court, Jane will need to click on the link to the court.  (see below)

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Jane now has her documents drafted.  But when should she file them?  By clicking on the Calendar and Case Status tab and selecting Annual Trial Calendar from the drop-down, Jane can determine when her petition needs to be filed if she wants her case heard in Great Falls.  According to the calendar, it looks like Jane will need to have her petition filed by May 19 with trial set to begin on August 4.  (see below)

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Simply by using the workers’ comp court website, Jane has obtained the information she needs in order to file a workers’ compensation claim for the on-the-job injury she suffered.  Jane is on the fast track to recovery and receiving compensation for her injury!

Authored by Brittany Santorno, 3L, University of Montana School of Law.  Brittany came to law school with a medical background, including a degree in Exercise Science.  She first became interested in workers’ compensation law during her employment at an orthopedic surgeon’s clinic.  This past spring Brittany enrolled in a work comp course and hopes to incorporate this area of law in to her future practice. 
 
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