Under R.C. 4123.512, employers and claimants alike may appeal orders of the Industrial Commission regarding the allowance of a claim or condition to the common pleas courts. Once the court has jurisdiction over the case, the case proceeds like any other civil litigation. According to the Ohio Supreme Court’s report forms, workers’ compensation cases should be tried within 12 months of the filing of the notice of appeal or, if the case has been refiled, within 12 months of the filing of the complaint. Any case which is not resolved within 12 months is considered “overage.”
During the pandemic, most litigation came to a halt, as conducting trials potentially could violate the Director of Health’s social distancing and hygiene mandates. To protect the rights of litigants, the Supreme Court took various measures, such as extending filing deadlines. The Supreme Court’s tolling order ended in the Fall of 2020. In the summer of 2020, the Supreme Court solicited recommendations from various legal associations regarding ways to conduct court business, especially trials, in a safe and efficient manner. Because the Supreme Court cannot dictate how courts manage their dockets, the Supreme Court did not order trial courts to adopt any specific preventive protocols, but, it did post the safety recommendations on its website.
As COVID fatigue began to set in, some trial courts began trying both criminal and civil cases as the pandemic surged in the late fall and winter. Other courts have remained in limbo, as their cases continue to backlog. Attorneys have objected to trying cases amid the pandemic because of health concerns, and as a result, some judges have come under scrutiny for failing to establish and enforce written COVID protocols before conducting a trial. In December, 2020, the Supreme Court disqualified a Muskingum County Common Pleas Court judge for attempting to conduct a trial without establishing safety measures which would comply with the Department of Health’s and Governor DeWine’s directives.
In 2021, the pandemic continues. Nevertheless, government officials are optimistic the spread of COVID-19 is declining because of the rollout of vaccinations. Slowly, trial courts are beginning to schedule civil trials again, although criminal cases take priority because of the constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial.
In light of the current state of affairs, a question remains: will trial courts try workers’ compensation cases in 2021? More than likely, the answer is yes. However, when a workers’ compensation case proceeds to trial in the calendar year depends on several factors, such as the court’s backlog of criminal and older civil cases, the efficacy of the court’s safety protocols, the comfort level of the litigants, and the urgency of the case. Generally, workers’ compensation cases are low priority, which means they may be displaced on the calendar by more important cases. Still, some courts may feel pressured to try workers’ compensation cases as soon as possible because of the reporting deadlines set forth by the Supreme Court, although it is doubtful the Supreme Court will be a stickler for the reporting deadlines during the pandemic. Regardless, as the number of COVID cases trend downward, it is more likely courts will resume business as usual, which means civil cases, including workers’ compensation cases, will be set for trial throughout 2021.