Thinking you can save a few bucks by settling your workers comp case without a lawyer? Buyer beware! The North Carolina Court of Appeals reminds us in Ramirez v. Stuart Pierce Farms (June 5, 2018, Elmore, J., unpublished) that a workers’ compensation settlement is final, even when the injured worker settled without an attorney and later discovered he may have reached a higher settlement if he had retained counsel. In Ramirez, the injured worker did not speak or write English, and was not represented by counsel when he entered into a $20,000.00 settlement. Four years later, he retained an attorney who tried to reopen his case, claiming that the settlement was not fair because the deputy commissioner who approved the settlement did not have all the medical records at the time of approval. Mr. Ramirez served a subpoena on the deputy commissioner who had approved his settlement, but the Industrial Commission and Court of Appeals both held that the subpoena should be quashed, because the deputy commissioner did not need to testify. The courts found no evidence of fraud, misrepresentation, mutual mistake, or undue influence, so nothing could be done. Too bad, so sad.
It is only natural for injured workers, once they start feeling better, to want to close out their case, especially when they receive that settlement offer from the insurance company. Who doesn’t want money, right? Unfortunately, some injured workers wrongly believe that, because their workers’ compensation settlement agreement must be reviewed and approved by a deputy commissioner at the Industrial Commission, someone knowledgeable is looking out for their legal interests. While the Industrial Commission rules do require the assigned deputy commissioner to make sure the agreement contains all the required language so that it is “fair and just to all parties,” the deputy commissioner is not allowed to represent the injured worker or fight for his interests over the interests of the insurance company. The deputy commissioner only addresses the information presented to him or her, and many unrepresented workers simply do not know enough about the Workers’ Compensation Act to know how to present their best case. The Workers’ Compensation Act contains more than 56,000 words, and that does not even include the 112 pages of interpreting rules and hundreds more interpreting appellate cases. Even the most educated and diligent injured worker cannot expect to read all that law, much less apply it effectively to his or her case.
For example, injured workers usually do not know the law allows them to request a second opinion disability rating from a doctor of their own choice, and the insurance adjuster, naturally, rarely offers up that option…why would she? Sadly, many unrepresented workers settle without ever obtaining that vital second opinion, which can greatly increase the settlement value of the case.
In the case of Mr. Ramirez, because he was not represented by an attorney, he did not know one other nuance of the law which allowed him to include certain medical records with his settlement agreement package. Even though he made that mistake when he settled, the courts found that the deputy commissioner had enough information to approve the settlement four years earlier.
The lesson for injured workers? The stakes are high when entering into a workers’ compensation settlement, so be very careful if you are unrepresented. Even if you find out later that the settlement was insufficient or unfair, most likely your options will be limited. Get it right the first time.
The experienced litigation attorneys at Copeley, Johnson & Groninger PLLC regularly represent injured workers in workers’ compensation matters and are concerned about injured workers who try to represent themselves without legal counsel. If you a friend, or family member is thinking of reaching a workers’ compensation settlement without an attorney , contact one of the experienced attorneys at Copeley, Johnson & Groninger for a personal consultation.
A certified workers’ compensation specialist, Valerie represents state employees, union members, police officers, and all types of North Carolina workers. She also teaches trial skills to third year law students at the University of North Carolina School of Law and has taught workers’ compensation law at Wake Forest University. Listed in Best Lawyers in America in the area of workers’ compensation, Valerie was admitted to the National Academy of Social Insurance in 2011.