Nebraska Supreme Court Provides Guidance on Appealable Orders in Workers’ Compensation Cases
Generally, orders in Nebraska are not appealable until they are “final.” But, what, exactly, is a final order in a workers’ compensation case? The Nebraska Supreme Court provided further guidance on this issue in December 2013. In Jacobitz v. Aurora Co-op , the Nebraska Supreme Court determined that “a Workers’ Compensation Court’s finding of a compensable injury or its rejection of an affirmative defense without a determination of benefits is not an order that affects an employer’s substantial right in a special proceeding.” The court determined that an order is not final, and therefore not appealable, unless there is a determination of benefits.
In Jacobitz, the employee, Jacobitz, was injured while cleaning up after a customer appreciation event held by Aurora Co-op. The Co-op claimed that Jacobitz was not working for the Co-op at the time of the accident, but had merely volunteered to help with the event. The primary issue before the Workers’ Compensation Court was whether Jacobitz was injured in the scope of his employment. The trial court granted Jacobitz’ motion to bifurcate the trial and to determine only whether the injury occurred in the scope of his employment. The Court issued an order finding that Jacobitz was injured in the scope of his employment, and scheduled a telephone conference for a later date to set a trial date for purposes of determining benefits. The Co-op filed a notice of appeal before the second hearing was held, claiming that the trial court erred in finding that Jacobitz was injured in the scope of his employment.
For an appellate court to acquire jurisdiction of an appeal, the appealing party must be appealing from a final order. The Supreme Court noted that while a party can appeal an order from the Workers’ Compensation Court if it affects a substantial right of the appealing party, there was also a line of cases that stated that an order from the workers’ compensation court is not final if the court reserves some issues for later determination. The Co-op argued that the trial court’s order affected a substantial right in a special proceeding because the order eliminated its complete defense to Jacobitz’ claim, namely, that the accident did not occur in the scope of employment. In response, Jacobitz cited the cases which held that an order is not final when the court reserved issues for later determination.
The Nebraska Supreme Court found that the trial court’s order was not final and dismissed the appeal. The basis for this determination was the Supreme Court’s concern that allowing several appeals at various stages of a workers’ compensation case slows down the process of determining benefits for the injured worker, contrary to the beneficient purposes of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The Supreme Court stated, “And permitting employers to appeal from an adverse ruling before the Workers’ Compensation Court has determined benefits is inconsistent with the Legislature’s intent to provide prompt benefits.”
Bifurcating trials in the Workers’ Compensation Court is a practice that is becoming more and more common. Jacobitz v. Aurora Co-op provides further guidance on the issue of final, appealable orders. Employers may not appeal until the trial court enters an order determining benefits. The decision in Jacobitz does not appear to alter the prior rule that if the trial court’s order leaves some issues for later determination, the order is not appealable. For more information regarding bifurcated trials and workers’ compensation issues in Nebraska, contact Jenny L. Panko at email@example.com or (402) 475-1075.