After an employee suffers a work-related injury in Pennsylvania, if the employer does not voluntarily accept the injury and files appropriate documents with the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, the usual next step is for the injured worker to retain an attorney who files a Claim Petition with the Bureau.
The Bureau then assigns the case to a Workers’ Compensation Judge. The judge will typically receive testimony from the employee by deposition and/or at a hearing. The judge will also receive and review the testimony of factual and expert medical witnesses and any other relevant evidence presented by the parties.
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The Responsibilities of a Workers’ Compensation Judge
Evaluating the weight of the evidence and determining the credibility of the witnesses are functions within the exclusive province of the Workers’ Compensation Judge.
The judge is responsible for making credibility determinations about each witness. The judge will generally explain which witness they found most credible and why.
Medical evidence is usually the most crucial factor in workers’ compensation litigation. An experienced workers’ compensation attorney knows how to prepare the medical doctor for testimony and what questions to ask the doctor to elicit the most favorable testimony.
Similarly, you need an experienced attorney to cross-examine the insurance company’s expert medical witness.
Judging the Credibility of Witnesses
Defense attorneys will do whatever it takes to attack the credibility of an injured worker. The judge may deny the claim If they perceive the employee as not credible.
Exactly how does a Judge assess a witness’ credibility? How do Judges decide who is telling the truth?
Different judges may rely on different factors and employ different methods when judging credibility issues. Some may feel that they have skills in viewing the witness and determining whether the witness is telling the truth, and others may look for more objective factors in assessing credibility.
Sometimes a witness may say something that is not consistent with something else he or she said. Sometimes different witnesses will give different versions of what happened.
If a judge decides that a witness has deliberately lied about something important, the judge may choose not to believe anything that the witness said.
On the other hand, if the judge thinks the witness testified falsely about some things but testified truthfully about others, the judge may accept or reject the witness’ testimony in whole or in part.
Factors That Can Impact The Credibility Of Witnesses
There is no formula for evaluating the truthfulness and accuracy of another person’s statements or testimony. Factors that judges may consider to decide the matter include the following:
- The consistency of the witness’ present and past statements about what happened.
- Whether the witness heard or saw what happened.
- The witness’ training and experience in the field about which they are testifying.
- Whether the medical expert’s testimony is consistent with generally accepted medical literature.
- Whether the version of events presented by a witness makes sense.
- Whether the employee promptly reported the injury and promptly sought medical treatment.
- Whether the employee has various prior injury claims.
- The witness’ demeanor such as whether the witness makes eye contact, whether the witness pauses too long in answering questions, and whether the witness’ body language suggests that the witness is not telling the truth. The tone of voice, shades of expression, and gestures may also be considered.
- Whether a witness has a criminal conviction for offenses involving dishonesty.
- Does the witness’ testimony seem unreasonable, impossible, or unlikely
- The expertise of the medical witness is a crucial factor. Is the doctor board-certified in the field that he is testifying about? How much training and experience does the doctor have in a particular area of medicine?
- Is the doctor’s testimony consistent with Claimant’s testimony?
- Is the doctor’s testimony consistent with the medical records and the diagnostic testing?
Must The Witness Testimony Be Perfect?
A credible witness doesn’t have to be “perfect”. Credible witnesses tell the truth about what they know, saw, and heard. Sometimes that means saying: “I don’t know” or “ I don’t remember.”
The judge may reject portions of an employee’s testimony even if other portions are credited.
Similarly, the judge may accept portions of each medical expert’s opinion while rejecting portions of each medical expert’s opinion, provided that the judge adequately explains the reasons for doing so.
A credibility determination will be overturned on appeal only if it is arbitrary and capricious or so fundamentally dependent on a misapprehension of material facts, or so otherwise flawed, as to render it irrational.
How Do Lawyers Attack Witness’ Credibility
Lawyers have various tools to attack the credibility of a witness, also known as “impeaching” a witness. Some basic methods that can be used to discredit witnesses include:
After a witness has testified, the lawyer for the other side can cross-examine the witness and ask questions designed to raise doubts about the witness’ credibility. The attorney may question the injured worker about prior inconsistent statements or contradictions in the medical records.
• Other witnesses
Attorneys may try to call other witnesses whose testimony contradicts the testimony of witnesses presented by the other side.
• Outside evidence
The defense attorney may present the testimony of a private investigator who presents surveillance evidence that the employee’s injuries are not as severe as depicted by the employee or his medical witness.
The defense attorney may try to introduce social media posts showing that the employee is more physically active than claimed. The defense attorney may introduce medical records to show that the claimant’s alleged injuries were pre-existing.
What Decides the Matter in the End?
If the judge feels that an injury victim and expert medical witness are credible, the judge is more likely to sympathize and side with the injury victim over the insurance company. If an insurance adjuster thinks that the injured worker is believable, the adjuster may decide to more quickly decide the case rather than engage in protracted litigation.
Credibility is the crux of workers’ compensation litigation. If a judge concludes that the injured worker is not credible, it can seriously impact the outcome of the workers’ compensation case and the judge may decide to deny or limit the claim.