The Law of the Case

An interesting decision from Texas: Steele v. Murphy & Beane Inc. and Viacom, The plaintiff was hired as "an independent makeup artist" on a television series. After lights were extinguished following a taping, she "fell down two flights of stairs and suffered severe injuries." One of the defendants offered benefits, but eventually there was a lawsuit in which Steele (the makeup artist) alleged deceptive practices fraud, fraudulent inducement, gross negligence, and more.
The defendants there claimed workers' compensation immunity, and alleged that the Texas "Division of Workers’ Compensation (Division), had exclusive jurisdiction over Steele’s claims." The trial court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit. The appellate court agreed and affirmed the dismissal. It is noteworthy that the injury occurred in Texas, and that workers' compensation is optional there.
The Court noted that medical care was provided by Viacom, and Steele signed "a Texas Workers Compensation Work Status Report." Steele was surprised therefore when Murphy & Beane filed "an Employer’s Report of Occupational Injury or Illness in California." Steele also alleged various other representations or omissions conveyed to her by Murphy & Beane. She thereafter received some care, even travelling to California at one point for a QME, but did not receive that evaluation. She complained that the California "medical-treatment guidelines" were used in her claims. The decision leaves the analysis of such questions of jurisdictional issues in doubt. The Court concludes the Texas Division has authority, but does not explain why California's Division does not.
After the civil complaint in Texas was dismissed, the Texas Division became involved. It was eventually concluded that "Steele’s recovery was barred by the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act (TWCA)." Therefore, Steele filed a second civil lawsuit. She contended that the Texas Division conclusion was an exhaustion of her administrative remedies, thus that she could file this second civil lawsuit. The appellate court explained the necessity of pursuing administrative remedies such as workers' compensation. The Court relied upon the earlier dismissal and that court's conclusion "that the Division has exclusive jurisdiction over Steele’s claims."
The Court explained that once the initial appellate court had so concluded, that "opinion is the law of the case." The Court further concluded that "Steele did not exhaust administrative remedies." The Court described a multi-step process regarding resolution of Texas workers' compensation disputes. Steele pursued only a Benefits Review Conference (BRC), “a nonadversarial, informal dispute resolution proceeding.” This might be similar to pursuing a workers' compensation claim in Florida, but only to the mediation.
The Court explained that there are two types of benefit disputes in Texas. The agreement reached at the BRC addressed only "issues of compensability," the first type of dispute. It did not reference any "dispute about the extent of injury, preauthorization, medical necessity, or administrative violations," the second type of dispute.
The Court noted that the Division is empowered to investigate claims "alleging that a workers’ compensation carrier has improperly investigated, handled, or settled a workers’ claim for benefits.” The record in the appellate court did not demonstrate "that Steele has either exhausted administrative remedies under Chapter 413 or provided the Division with notice of administrative violations," regarding her allegations about the manner in which the defendants administered her Texas accident. Thus, before a lawsuit for alleged mistakes or misstatements in the process, the Court concluded Ms. Steele must ask the Texas Division to investigate those. 

Similarly to collateral estoppel, the "law of the case" may preclude a party from re-litigating an issue once that issue has been decided in a case. Therefore, the timing and thoroughness of bringing a claim may of significant importance. The Steele analysis is also an important reminder of the potential for claims to be potentially within the authority of multiple states. This injured worker would seemingly be within the jurisdiction of the Texas system (per the Court's analysis) and simultaneously the California system (per the Murphy & Beane election to provide care under that law). 

The case illustrates that workers' compensation can be both complicated and challenging for even seasoned practitioners. When presented with injuries and allegations, an attorney may have an obvious alternative as well as various less-than-obvious potentials. The implications of California and Texas law my differ regarding details such as when and how a claim must be filed. The elements of proof and available benefits may likewise differ from state to state. And, this case illustrates that the determination of who the responsible employer is may require some sorting (as between Murphy & Beane  and Viacom). 

There will correspondingly be events in which determinations of state law, the correct jurisdiction, venue, and parties are more clean and concise. But, the complications are often present, requiring the navigation skills of an attorney with a breadth and depth of knowledge in a variety of challenges. The involvement of multiple potential jurisdictions and parties can make a workers' compensation accident significantly complex. 
  • Read Also

    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

    Read More

    Request a Demo

    To request a free demo of one of our products, please fill in this form. Our sales team will get back to you shortly.