In brief: Trial of New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Cases

In 2015 employers reported 134,580 accidents in which employees suffered injury or occupational disease. In the same year, 34,500 new claim petitions were filed in the New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation. An additional 6,250 re-opening claim petitions were filed in the same period. The vast majority of trials are resolved by the parties before testimony is completed and before a judge makes a final determination. Approximately 160 of those cases will be decided by the Division’s Judges after a complete trial. ​

Trial & Evidence

All workers’ compensation trials are decided solely by a Judge of Compensation: there is no jury. A judge is given wide latitude to decide cases. The standard of proof for a judge’s findings was outlined in the Supreme Court case of Close v. Kordulak. The court inquired “whether the findings made could have been reached on sufficient credible evidence in the record after giving due weight to (the judge’s) expertise in the field and his opportunity to hear and observe the witness.” See Close v. Kordulak, 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965).

Judge as “expert” and Non-consecutive trial dates.

Judges of Compensation are considered “experts” in the areas of medicine and employment and decisions of Judges of Compensation at trial are given extra weight by reviewing courts. Think of the Workers’ Compensation Judge assigned to hear your case as an “expert.”

The administrative rules set forth by the Department of Labor control how trials are presented in the Workers’ Compensation Division. Trials are not (usually) conducted on consecutive days. Instead, trials take place over several months, with each party presenting witnesses separately. The usual order is: first, the testimony of the claimant. Next, any lay witnesses (any person not an expert) testify (usually the employee’s supervisor or witness to the disputed incident). Then the petitioner’s expert physicians, and finally the respondent’s expert physicians. Note that after each party presents a witness, the other side then has the opportunity to cross-examine that witness.

Trends and Practical Advice.

Currently, and based on analysis of the twenty year trend statistics, 2% of all workers’ compensation cases in New Jersey are tried. As set forth above, an even smaller percentage of cases reach judicial decision (most are settled after the petitioner’s testimony is taken). “Conclusion” of a trial is either: (a) settlement, (b) dismissal, or (c) judicial decision. Following dismissal or decision, there is an opportunity to appeal the findings.

Because trials are non-consecutive, they rarely go “all the way” to verdict. After each step of the litigation process, and after each witness testifies, there is a break in proceedings, sometimes for several weeks or months while witness schedules are accommodated. This provides the parties with ample opportunity to limit the issues in dispute and compromise or settle the claims, which is generally more efficient than proceeding to final judgment.

Greg Lois is the managing partner of LOIS LLC, a 19-attorney law firm dedicated to defending employers and carriers in New York and New Jersey workers' compensation claims. Greg is the author of a popular series of "Handbooks" on workers' compensation, and is the co-author of the 2016 Lexis-Nexis New Jersey Workers' Compensation Practice Guide. Greg can be reached at 201-880-7213 or glois@lois-llc.com