Supreme Court clarifies rules for race to the courthouse

Judges call on lawmakers to resolve issue, including nonsynchronous clocks, in workers' comp cases

The Tennessee Supreme Court has reiterated that workers' compensation lawsuits can be filed only after the state has officially declared that a formal review could not resolve the differences between employer and worker.

The dispute in Walter Word v. Metro Air Services stems from the 10:22 a.m. time stamp on the lawsuit filed by Word's attorneys in Wilson County Chancery Court on Oct. 20 of last year. That was two minutes before the time that a Tennessee Department of Labor workers' comp specialist stamped on her report noting the impasse between the two parties. Metro Air called on Wilson Chancery to dismiss Word's case because of that, but the court — taking into account affidavits that Word's case had been filed after his attorneys had received their copy of the state's report — denied that motion.

That shouldn't have happened, said the Supreme Court judges, led by Chief Justice Cornelia Clark.

"The issue is not whether the complaint was filed before Mr. Williams had been physically handed the Report," the justices wrote in their opinion. "The issue is whether the complaint was filed before the 'time noted on the Report issued by the Workers’ Compensation Specialist.'"

The reiteration settles things for now, but the judges noted that "the undignified spectacle of literally racing to secure perceived procedural advantages" in workers' comp cases should be addressed by lawmakers. When (or if) the legislature takes up the topic, they added, it should also "resolve the issue of nonsynchronous clocks."

But until then, the time stamp on the benefit review report will continue to be the benchmark.