BY JUDGE BRIAN K. ADDINGTON
TN Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims
When Covid-19 started to spread, the Tennessee Court of Worker’s Compensation Claims decided that it would be best for all parties to conduct settlement approvals by phone. At least for me, this created potential problems because I am inept on the computer at times dealing with various Outlook, Adobe, and other system issues. Also, I was used to dealing with people, not listening to a conversation on the phone. Finally, our office had to develop a routine for obtaining signed paperwork with the filing fees, conducting the hearing, and returning the filed documents to parties.
Thanks to everybody in my office, the telephone hearings went as well as could be expected. The administrative staff and my staff attorney scheduled settlements at twenty-minute intervals, sent the signed documents to me in advance, and returned the signed documents to the parties by email after processing the filing fee. They also provided the bridge line number and sent reminders about the settlement time and dates to the parties. On days when the bridge line failed or when I had an unexpected absence, they called the parties to reschedule or worked with another judge to get the settlement heard.
In looking back, it was an amazing process that came together out of the blue due to necessity.
However, I felt discomfort during phone settlements because I could not observe the parties in person when discussing the terms. I have found over the years that I can read someone’s expression or manners during these hearings and see when more details need to be discussed, or I can see that someone needs more time to decide whether to accept the settlement. I could not do that as well by phone, but on several occasions reset settlements when I could hear in the voices of the parties that they were unsure of the agreement.
I also felt that, at times, some of the parties were not taking the process seriously. I could tell folks were outside or on the road, doing personal things, jogging, even eating lunch at a restaurant. This was unlike anything I had experienced before in a court setting, and, on occasion, I had to remind the parties, even attorneys, about the importance of settlement hearings and the seriousness of the issues. What could be more serious than settling issues such as permanent impairment and lifetime medical treatment?
Since April 6, the Tennessee Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims is back to conducting in-person settlement hearings. This enables our judges to view the parties and hear their concerns in person, which helps me determine whether the settlement should proceed. I also feel more comfortable in being back with the parties and being there for them to ask me questions. I have also seen a return of the parties being serious as they enter the courtroom and being more engaged during the settlement itself.
I have been asked why we did not offer video settlements. At least for me, that was one hurdle that would have been hard to cross. Getting two parties on a video conference would require training parties how to get on the call, adjust their microphone, their video, etc. Then we would have to make sure they appeared at the right time. And for some folks who did not have a computer, it would require them to go to a library or other facility where they could access the necessary technology. It just wasn’t workable.
So, it’s good to be back to in-person settlements. And I hope and pray that we never encounter another pandemic that makes us return to phone settlements.