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Injured Worker’s Court Case Seeking Additional Compensation Can Proceed

Once an injured employee properly appeals a workers’ compensation claim to a court, a five-year limit on the Ohio Industrial Commission’s oversight of the claim does not impact the court case, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed a Third District Court of Appeals decision that terminated a Whirlpool Corporation employee’s appeal in court because five years had elapsed since his last workers’ compensation payment. The Court rejected an argument by Whirlpool that an appeal of an injury claim expired five years after the last payment, regardless of whether the appeal was pending.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy likened the appeals process to a relay race. Once the worker files an appeal in common pleas court, the case, like a baton, passes from the Industrial Commission, which hears administrative appeals of injury claims, to the trial court. The decision allowed Brian Caldwell to continue to pursue his appeal for a work-related injury he suffered in 2015.

“Caldwell did all that was required of him under R.C. 4123.512 to have his day in court,” the chief justice wrote.

Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, Jennifer Brunner, and Joseph T. Deters joined the opinion. Tenth District Court of Appeals Judge Michael C. Mentel, sitting for Justice Melody Stewart, also joined the opinion.

Worker Sought Coverage for Additional Injury
Caldwell was injured while working at Whirlpool in 2015 and was awarded permanent-partial-disability compensation for a hernia. Under Ohio’s workers’ compensation self-insurance option, Whirlpool made payments to Caldwell until January 2017.

In December 2019, Caldwell sought additional coverage for “disc protrusions or bulges” in his back, which he claimed were related to the original injury. A series of administrative decisions and appeals resulted in the Industrial Commission denying his right to additional coverage. Under R.C. 4123.512, Caldwell had 60 days to appeal the commission’s decision to a common pleas court. Caldwell filed a complaint in Marion County Common Pleas Court within the statutory deadline.

As the case progressed, Caldwell voluntarily dismissed his case without prejudice in April 2021 and refiled it in April 2022. Whirlpool asked the trial court for summary judgment, arguing that since its last payment to Caldwell was made in January 2017, his appeal process ended in January 2022 under a separate but related statute, R.C. 4123.52. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case.

Caldwell appealed to the Third District. Relying on its 2021 Chatfield v. Whirlpool Corp. decision, the Third District wrote that the five-year statute of limitations in R.C. 5142.52 requires that an injured worker not only must file an appeal within five years, but also must prevail before the time limit expires.

Caldwell appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Injury Compensation Appeal Laws
The Court analyzed three workers’ compensation statutes governing the appeals process. Under R.C. 4123.511, if an injury claim is denied, the worker can pursue a multi-step appeal process that culminates with a final decision by the Industrial Commission. If the commission denies the appeal, R.C. 4123.512 allows the worker to appeal the Industrial Commission’s decision in common pleas court.

Under R.C. 4123.512, the trial court determines whether the worker can receive or continue to receive workers’ compensation payments. If the trial court rules in favor of the worker, the law directs the Industrial Commission to proceed with the matter as if the commission had granted the worker’s appeal.

R.C. 4123.52, which Whirlpool claimed ended Caldwell’s claim, outlines the Industrial Commission’s jurisdiction over workers’ compensation cases, the opinion explained. The law allows the commission to make modifications and changes to its former findings and orders for an injury claim. The statute states that once a worker receives compensation, any “modification, change, finding, or award shall be made within five years from the date of the last payment of compensation.”

The Court pointed to its 1984 Youghiogheny & Ohio Coal Co. v. Mayfield decision, which found that under a prior version of R.C. 4123.512, the Court ruled that once a workers’ compensation appeal has been filed in common pleas court, the court has jurisdiction over the claim. Caldwell filed his appeal within the required five-year window from his last payment, and used the proper state law to refile his claim in 2022, the opinion stated.

Once his claim was filed in court, the timeline governing the commission’s jurisdiction no longer applied, the opinion stated. Caldwell’s case was passed “to the judiciary for a fresh review,” the Court concluded.

“Therefore, Caldwell’s properly filed case proceeded in the trial court under R.C. 4123.512, and R.C. 4123.52, which covers only administrative matters, could not intrude on that judicial action,” the opinion stated.

2023-0809. Caldwell v. Whirlpool Corp., Slip Opinion No. 2024-Ohio-1625.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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