A potential client recently asked about the difference between a typical civil trial and a workers’ compensation trial. The insurance company denied his benefits after finding out about a prior injury to the same body part that was injured at work, and a trial date had been set.

In a workers’ comp case, you aren’t in a lawsuit; it’s a claim against the employer’s insurance company. There are hearings and trials, but they may be different from what you’d expect.d

First of all, you won’t be heading to the courthouse. Disputes are handled by arbitrators at the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, which is based in downtown Chicago and has various hearing locations throughout the state. Also, the arbitrators are the judges. They hear cases and resolve disputes. Although many of them are lawyers, it’s not a requirement in Illinois. And there are no juries in workers’ compensation trials. The arbitrator makes the final decision.

There are a few circumstances that might bring your case before the arbitrator. Most cases have periodic status hearings at the Commission. These are not trials but rather a way for the arbitrators to keep tabs on a case and move it along. Status hearings are straightforward, and your lawyer can often handle it without you needing to be there. However, if there is a dispute — the insurer denies your claim, you believe you aren’t being paid the right amount, or medical treatment such as surgery is denied – you can request a more formal hearing or a trial. Also, an arbitrator can set a case for trial if it has gone on without resolution for too long.

At trial, you will appear with your attorney. The insurance company’s attorney, the arbitrator, a court reporter and maybe a witness or two will also be there. Both sides will present their arguments. Depending on the dispute, your attorney may have to prove that your injury was actually caused by your job, or that your job aggravated a pre-existing injury, or that your injury is worth a certain amount. The injured worker usually testifies, and possibly witnesses if there is a question about the accident or incident that caused the injury. And your doctor’s testimony (usually taken ahead of time in a deposition) will be submitted. When you testify, do your best to remain calm and answer questions clearly. Always be honest about your injury.

You do not have to prove that the injury was your employer’s fault, nor will it harm your case if the injury was your fault. It’s simply not an issue in these cases, except in a rare instance where something extreme was going on (like horse play or something completely outside of your job duties).

After trial, you have to wait. It usually takes a couple of months before you get the arbitrator’s decision. They hear the testimony and review all the medical records and then present a written decision. Although you can appeal to a panel of commissioners, the majority of the decisions stick.

The issue of whether to settle or go to trial is an important one. If you settle, you can avoid trial and the possibility of losing all benefits. If you settle, you at least get something. On the other hand, settling usually includes forgoing all future medical claims, meaning you are agreeing to a final sum of money and can’t come back later asking for more treatment if your injury worsens. If you win at trial, future medical coverage is usually left open.

Workers’ comp trials are not like civil trials. Just because you know how to do one doesn’t mean you know how to handle the other. Make sure your attorney is familiar with the procedures and customs at the Commission and knows the arbitrators there. And make sure they are willing to actually take your case to trial if necessary.

We are workers’ compensation attorneys that help people with Illinois work injuries anywhere in IL via our statewide network of attorneys. Contact us and we will answer your questions or find the right lawyer for your situation.