Workers’ Comp Board Restarts In-Person Hearings
Good news for anyone in Georgia who needs to go before a Judge in a Worker’s Compensation matter. In-person hearings are back! Last week, I represented a client in the very first in-person Workers’ Comp hearing in Georgia since March. (It’s great to be a pioneer.) So in this blog I want to share what I learned.
While I was happy to be back in the courtroom, the experience is certainly different than before the COVID pandemic. In a blog earlier this year, I described the careful process the State Board of Workers’ Compensation had created for virtual hearings. Now the Board has taken the same thoughtful and pragmatic approach to restart in-person hearings. Here’s preview of what you can expect.
First, if your claim is pending before an Atlanta judge, your claim may be moved to a smaller venue. Atlanta claims are normally heard at the State Board’s office in downtown Atlanta. In my recent trial, Atlanta was the correct venue for the claim, but the Judge suggested moving the hearing to Gainesville. The Gainesville courtroom is in a much smaller building without all the pedestrian traffic that is inevitable in downtown Atlanta.
In advance of the hearing date, the attorneys will have at least two pre-hearing calls with the Judge. In the first call, the Judge explains how the new process will work including new procedures. And in a second call closer to the hearing date the judge will also ask the now familiar COVID screening questions regarding recent travel, exposure to others with COVID and any possible COVID symptoms. Among the changes the judge will describe in one that I really like regarding exhibits (medical records and other documents). To limit handling of potentially contaminated documents, exhibits are now exchanged at least two days in advance of the hearing via a secure DropBox site. Unlike the pre-pandemic days, the lawyers do not have to show up at the hearing with copies of exhibits for the opposing side and for the Judge. The judge and lawyers have copies of the exhibits in advance of the hearing.
On the day of the hearing, safety precautions begin in the parking lot. You are instructed to a call the Judge’s assistant when you arrive and wait on their okay to enter the building. The parties enter at different times to minimize contact. Once you enter the building, you will see place markers spaced six feet apart to facilitate social distancing. A security guard will take your temperature and again ask the COVID screening questions. Once one side is cleared to go in, the opposing counsel and any of their witnesses go through the same screening process.
Everyone involved in person wears a mask during the entire proceeding. And certain witnesses may participate via Zoom thus preventing the need for a mask.
It was a different experience, but it went smoothly, and my clients had their much-needed day in court. So, I give the new process an “A” in terms of balancing safety with the need to go to court.