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I Want a Jury Trial for My Workers’ Compensation Claim.  How Can I Get There and What Can They Decide?

The following post is part of our Law Student Blog Writing Project, and is authored by Jessie Smith, a law student from the University of Kentucky.

The Ohio Workers’ Compensation Code allows an injured worker to appeal a decision by the Industrial Commission to a regular Court of Common Pleas and have a jury trial.  But if a worker makes that kind of appeal, what issues is the jury allowed to hear?  This article will discuss the Ohio Supreme Court’s Opinion in Ward v. Kroger Co., where that question is answered.

On April 26, 2001, Howard Ward (hereinafter “Ward” or “plaintiff”), an employee of Kroger Company (hereinafter “Kroger” or “Defendant”), injured his right knee in the course of his employment. In the Workers’ Compensation claim that followed, Kroger certified the condition of “right knee sprain,” but would not certify the conditions of “medial meniscus tear” and “chondromalacia.” Throughout the administrative review process, a district hearing officer allowed plaintiff’s claim for “right knee sprain,” but disallowed the other claims, a decision that was affirmed by a staff hearing officer. These decisions were not disturbed, due to the Industrial Commission’s refusal to hear a further appeal.

In an effort to have his claims for “medial meniscus tear” and “chondromalacia” allowed, and to participate in the Workers’ Compensation Fund for those conditions, Ward appealed, pursuant to R.C. 4123.512 (an Ohio statute generally allowing for the appeal of certain decisions made by the Industrial Commission in Workers’ Compensation cases), the decisions made throughout the administrative process to the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas. Shortly before the scheduled trial date, however, plaintiff filed a motion to amend his complaint to add the conditions of “aggravation of preexisting degenerative joint disease” and “aggravation of preexisting osteoarthritis.” Neither of these conditions had been presented to the administrative body.

The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint, and the plaintiff dismissed the “chondromalacia” claim. However, the case proceeded to trail by jury on the remaining claims (including the original “medial meniscus tear” condition, as well as the conditions of “aggravation of preexisting degenerative joint disease” and “aggravation of preexisting osteoarthritis” contained in the amended complaint). The jury returned a verdict against the plaintiff on the originally appealed condition (that is, “medial meniscus tear”), but found in favor of the plaintiff on the remaining claims.

Plaintiff’s victory at the trial court was appealed. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the trial court, holding that the trial court had “exceeded its jurisdiction by permitting the employee [Ward] to amend his complaint to add these two conditions, which were never presented to the administrative body” (emphasis added). Ultimately, the Court of Appeals held that, when an appeal is being made pursuant to R.C. 4123.512, “the scope of the trial is limited to the condition ruled upon below.” In other words, the trial court had erred in allowing the plaintiff to amend his complaint to add two new conditions (that is, the conditions of “aggravation of preexisting degenerative joint disease” and “aggravation of preexisting osteoarthritis”) because those conditions had never been ruled upon by the administrative body (that is, the district hearing officer, staff hearing officer, and Industrial Commission).

The Court of Appeals’ decision was appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. The basic issue to be decided by the Court, as alluded to above, was the scope of a R.C. 4123.512 appeal. Specifically, the question to be addressed was whether such appeals were limited in scope to those conditions addressed by the administrative body – in other words, was it permissible for trial courts to allow a plaintiff to amend his or her complaint prior to trial to include conditions that were never presented to the administrative body below?

The Ohio Supreme Court began its analysis by making note of the dichotomy that existed between the district courts of appeals on this particular issue. Some courts were of the opinion that allowing a plaintiff to amend his or her complaint to include conditions not initially or originally presented to the administrative body was permissible. These courts rationalized this conclusion by pointing out that an appeal made pursuant to R.C. 4123.512 is subject to “de novo” review of law and fact, and that, therefore, a plaintiff is not limited to the record formed during the administrative process. In further support of this conclusion, these courts reasoned that R.C. 4123.512 “provides for the application of the Civil Rules, which freely permit amendment of issues and claims.” Additionally, these courts note that R.C. 4123.512 authorizes “the taking of depositions and other discovery,” implying that the General Assembly (Ohio’s legislative body) “contemplated that additional evidence might surface in the court of common pleas and intended, in the interest of judicial economy, to allow for the litigation of new conditions.”

As persuasive as the previous reasoning may be, the Ohio Supreme Court’s mindset was more aligned with the opposing view. Those courts that disagree with the foregoing reasoning hold that a plaintiff may not litigate a new or different condition at trial in the court of common pleas. These courts reason that, since the trial is characterized as “de novo,” only “new evidence may be presented with regard to the appealed condition” – “evidence of a new condition may [not] be presented for the first time on appeal.” Additionally, these courts “view the order appealed as framing the jurisdiction of the common pleas court” – in other words, the administrative body must first be presented with and review conditions set forth by the plaintiff before the court of common pleas can adjudicate the issue.

As noted, the Ohio Supreme Court is in agreement with the view that appeals made pursuant to R.C. 4123.512 are limited in scope to those conditions addressed by the administrative body. However, the Ohio Supreme Court, in their decision, expanded upon the reasoning provided by the lower courts. The Ohio Supreme Court reasoned that “allowing consideration of the right to participate for additional conditions to originate at the judicial level is inconsistent with [the] statutory scheme” because, in essence, it eliminates the need and purpose behind the administrative body’s existence in the first place. To put it a slightly different way, the entire reason the administrative body was put in to place was to allow for the introduction of claims and to provide a record upon which higher courts could rely during the appellate process; allowing a plaintiff to amend his or her complaint and introduce entirely new issues for litigation at the trial court would eliminate the need for the administrative body. If such were not the case, plaintiffs should logically initiate their workers’ compensation claims at the trial court itself, as opposed to the Industrial Commission or administrative body, because, under such a scheme, the trial court and the administrative body share the exact same authority to allow for the introduction and adjudication of new and initial claims.

Ultimately, the opinion rendered by the Ohio Supreme Court in this case is consistent with principles of judicial review that have always, and continue to, justify the existence of appellate practice in nearly every jurisdiction in this country. The appeals process is, in a very general sense, meant to ensure against the erroneous application of law by lower courts. Appellate courts do not exist to provide litigants with multiple opportunities to perpetually try the same case over and over again. If this were not the case, every justification provided for the existence of administrative bodies and/or trial courts would be eliminated, leaving litigants with one court, and one court only, to adjudicate their claims from beginning to end. Such a system would result in the eradication of procedural safeguards, the multiplication of incorrect applications of law, and the destruction of all available means of recourse for litigants.