Workers’ Compensation Judges (WCJs) in Pennsylvania have great latitude and authority vested in them to perform their jobs. They are the ultimate finders of fact, and determiners of credibility. In running their courtrooms, WCJs may extend or shorten deadlines for the submission of evidence, depending on the circumstances. However, the authority granted to a WCJ does have its limits.
In Wagner v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Ty Construction Co., Inc.), the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed the decision of a WCJ to dismiss a Claim Petition because the injured worker’s attorney failed to meet the deadline for obtaining its medical evidence.
The case was a complicated one, involving lung cancer allegedly stemming from an exposure to paint chemicals. After the Claim Petition was filed, and a hearing took place, the attorney for the injured worker learned that the cancer specialist was refusing to be involved in any type of litigation. This meant the attorney had to locate another expert witness, and get a deposition scheduled. Eventually, another expert was obtained and a deposition was scheduled. This deposition was then cancelled at the request of the insurance carrier’s attorney, so they could get a report from their medical expert in advance of the deposition. When the attorneys appeared back in from of the WCJ, upon motion of the insurance carrier’s attorney, the WCJ dismissed the case because the injured worker’s attorney did not have his deposition done in time. This was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).
Commonwealth Court of PA reversed the WCJ. Firstly, the attorney for the injured worker had the deposition scheduled and cancelled the deposition at the request of the other attorney. Secondly, the insurance carrier did not even have their own medical report yet, so there was no unreasonable delay by the injured worker. Thirdly, the insurance carrier showed no prejudice by the delay (since they had things yet to accomplish also). The Court said prejudice is certainly a factor, and, unless the injured worker is negligently or purposely delaying the case, there should not be a dismissal without a finding of prejudice. The case was remanded back to the WCJ to litigate the merits of the Claim Petition.