In my nearly 16 years of representing clients in workers’ compensation matters, one particular question is asked more often than any others: How long will this process take and what should I expect along the way? When entering into workers’ compensation litigation, there are a few important principles to keep in mind that will be highlighted in this post.
The Pennsylvania workers’ compensation process is and will continue to be one of the quickest and most efficient ways in which an aggrieved party’s case can be heard from start to finish. However, it is also important to have reasonable expectations as to just how long a case will take from the filing of a Petition until a Judge’s Decision is rendered.
A reasonable estimate of the time it will take from the filing of a Petition until a decision is issued is 12 to 15 months in most cases. During this period of time, there are several important dates and benchmarks to keep an eye on. It is also critical for both parties to be prepared for the long haul from the outset of a case. Let’s take a sample case in turn to add some specificity to this timeline.
From the time that a petition is filed until it is assigned to a workers’ compensation judge, and a hearing is scheduled is typically 4 to 6 weeks. This timeline has gotten shorter in the last 10 or so years with the advent of online filing and litigation of cases through the system known as the Workers’ Compensation Automation and Integration System (WCAIS).
Each Workers’ Compensation Judge in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has the right and ability to choose his or her own preferences as to how a case will be handled from start to finish, within the boundaries of the law. Some Judges will elect to conduct a pre-trial conference at the first hearing on certain types of petitions. A pretrial conference is one that involves only the Judge and the attorneys and involves a discussion and overview of the legal, factual, and medical issues and evidence in the case. At that pretrial conference, the Judge will set forth evidentiary deadlines and a general outline of how the case is going to proceed. In many cases, a pre-trial conference is also an efficient way of bringing the parties together early on in order to determine if some type of resolution to the petition or issues can be reached quickly.
By contrast, some Workers’ Compensation Judges will take oral testimony from the injured worker at the first hearing on all or some types of Petitions. That means that the hearing will generally be listed for approximately 30 minutes in duration and that the claimant will testify both on direct and cross-examination at that hearing. Depending upon the complexity of the issues, a claimant may or may not get finished with all of his or her testimony at that hearing. Yet other Judges may elect to have the parties complete Claimant’s testimony outside of Court, via deposition, within the first 45-90 days after the first hearing, and then the Claimant will only testify “live” before the Judge at the conclusion of the matter, right before the case is put into the Judge’s hands for issuance of a Decision.
Regardless of how the Judge proceeds, evidentiary deadlines will run from the first hearing forward. As a general rule, within 45 days of the first hearing, the insurance company is required to schedule and complete an independent medical examination, also known as an IME. Similarly, The moving party on a Petition has the burden of proof as a general rule and that party must present factual, legal and/or medical evidence within 90 days of that first hearing. The responding party then has a period of 90 days thereafter in order to present its factual or medical evidence.
As you might imagine, there are exceptions to this trial schedule which can and often do result in some delay. Judges generally try to be flexible with the parties when they are making legitimate efforts to schedule evidence or complete their case, as long as a good faith effort is apparent. While that benefits both parties at some point in time or another, it is easy to see how a process that is generally designed to get from start to finish in 180 days most often takes longer than that.
Once all evidence is completed, many Judges schedule a final hearing. At that final hearing, the injured worker or other pertinent fact witnesses may testify. That testimony is generally by way of update or to rebut evidence that has otherwise been presented in the case previously. Judges will typically then set a deadline for written argument approximately 60 days from the final hearing where there is testimony at that final hearing or 30 to 45 days thereafter when there is no testimony.
As with evidentiary proceedings, Judges are flexible as a general rule if the parties need additional time to complete written argument. Additionally, it is not unusual for the trial schedule to be extended by the mandatory mediation process which occurs typically approximately 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through the case.
Once the judge has written argument in hand, a Decision must be issued within 90 days. Even that timeline varies by factors that are simply beyond either parties’ knowledge, relating specifically to the Judge’s workload.
Putting all of these things together, when litigation is initiated, a party should generally expect to be involved in that litigation for approximately 12 to 15 months until a Judge’s Decision is rendered.