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How Montana Workers’ Compensation Court Work
The Montana Workers’ Compensation Court is a court of limited jurisdiction that handles disputes arising under the Montana Workers’ Compensation Act. The legislature enacted the act to mandate businesses to compensate employees who suffer work-related injuries or contract work-related diseases. Thus, the tenets of the act are to:
- Provide injured employees a guaranteed source of compensation for injuries (regardless of liability);
- Provide employers immunity from lawsuits arising from most workplace injuries;
While Montana state laws require most employers to have insurance for workers’ compensation, Section 39–71–401 makes provisions for a few exceptions for employees whom the act does not cover. Some of these include casual employees, family members, sole proprietors, professional athletes, religious workers, volunteers, and individuals working aid or sustenance only. The following is a summary of the primary objectives of the Montana Workers’ Compensation Court:
- Annual revision of court rules to ensure clarity and usefulness for unrepresented parties as well as the practicing bar;
- Flexible policy regarding how and where conferences, hearings, and trials take place for the convenience of litigants;
- Timely resolution of petitions within 90 days;
- Maintaining publicly available access to court decisions and orders on the court’s website; and,
- Provide continued support for unrepresented litigants.
The judiciary works with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) as well as the Montana State Fund to handle disputes that arise from workers’ compensation claims. Generally, judges make declarations based on Montana’s Workers’ Compensation Act and administrative rules covering workers’ compensation in Montana.
A claim begins when an employee makes a verbal report or written notice of the injury within 30 days of the accident or within one year of having informed knowledge of the occupational disease. Next, the claimant submits a signed First Report of Injury (FROI) form to the insurer, employer, or directly to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (as applicable) within six days of the report or notice. The notice and FROI must contain necessary information regarding the injury or disease contracted, including the date, approximate time, and location of the injury. As there is a statute of limitations on the window for filing claims, the injured employee must file a claim as soon as possible.
Upon receipt of the signed FROI, the insurer or employer must respond by accepting or denying the claim within 30 days. The recipient can respond by completing the employer or insurer section of the FROI document. Then, the insurer or employer must file the accepted or denied FROI with the DLI. Suppose the employer or insurer agrees with the claim. In that case, the employee receives access to reasonable medical care, coverage for associated costs, and compensation for lost wages or disability benefits, as well as death benefits for kin.
Conversely, if the employer or insurer denies the claim, the employee then contacts the DLI to dispute the denial. The DLI will initiate a dispute mediation process by assigning an impartial mediator to work with the claimant and the employer/insurer to reach a mutual agreement. However, this mediation is informal and confidential. If mediation fails, the claimant must file the dispute in the state’s workers’ compensation court.
In this case, the court will schedule a formal hearing to verify the claim or dismiss it. The workers’ compensation court does not conduct jury trials, and when trials do occur, the Montana Administrative Procedure Act hosts them. The timeline for resolving a claim varies with the complexity of the case and the pending caseload. Generally, the court seeks to resolve disputes within 90 days, but this may take years, especially when litigants appeal the court’s ruling to the Montana Supreme Court. According to court statistics, the worker’s compensation handles an average of 267 cases annually. The caseload increased by 39% between 2013 and 2019.
The governor appoints the Montana Workers’ Compensation Judge from a list of nominees submitted by the Judicial Nomination Commission. The appointment follows an interview and confirmation of the incoming judge by the senate. The workers’ compensation court judge serves a first term of six years, and the party may be re-appointed for unlimited terms unless incapacitated or removed from office viz:
- Impeachment: This begins when a two-thirds vote convicts two-thirds of the house votes for impeachment and the senate’s justice.
- Disciplinary action: The Supreme Court may suspend or remove a judge based on the judicial standards commission (JSC). The action begins when the JSC investigates complaints about the misconduct or unethical conduct of a judge.
Upon the incapacitation or removal of the workers’ compensation court judge, the governor appoints an interim judge to handle the office’s duties for the remainder of the unexpired term. After that, the appointment of a successor will follow the nomination mentioned above and selection. If the governor fails to choose a successor within 30 days of nomination, the Supreme Court’s chief justice will appoint the interim justice. Generally, judgeship nominees must meet the following eligibility requirements:
- Must be a citizen of the United States;
- Must have resided in the state at least two years before taking office;
- Must have been admitted to practice law in Montana for at least five years before the date of appointment or election;
- Must reside within the state during the terms of office;
- Cannot hold any other elected office of public service;
- Must abide by the canons of the Montana Code of Judicial Conduct;
Apart from its primary location, the Workers’ Compensation Court holds regular trial terms in five cities in Montana, including Billings, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, and Missoula. Each trial term lasts for one week and happens in each city four times a year. The court publishes an annual scheduling calendar detailing deadlines for filing petitions in each venue, as well as the dates of pretrial conferences and the weeks of trial.
The Workers’ Compensation Court is located at: