Section 25-5-81

Determination of disputed compensation claims generally.

(a) Commencement of action in circuit court.

(1) PROCEDURE. In case of a dispute between employer and employee or between the dependents of a deceased employee and the employer with respect to the right to compensation under this article and Article 2 of this chapter, or the amount thereof, either party may submit the controversy to the circuit court of the county which would have jurisdiction of a civil action in tort between the parties. The controversy shall be heard and determined by the judge who would hear and determine a civil action between the same parties arising out of tort, and, in case there is more than one judge of the court, the controversies shall be set and assigned for hearing under the same rules and statutes that civil actions in tort are set and assigned. The court may hear and determine the controversies in a summary manner. The decision of the judge hearing the same shall be conclusive and binding between the parties, subject to the right of appeal provided for in this article.

(2) RIGHT TO JURY TRIAL. When willful misconduct on the part of the employee is set up by the employer, as it is provided for in this article, the employer may, upon appearing, demand a jury to hear and determine, under the direction of the court, the issues involved in this defense. If the employer fails to demand a jury upon appearing, the employee may demand a jury to try the issues by filing a demand within five days after the appearance of the employer. When a jury is demanded by either party, the court shall submit the issues of fact as to willful misconduct set up by the employer to the jury, for a special finding of the facts subject to the usual powers of the court over verdicts rendered contrary to the evidence or the law, but the judge shall determine all other questions involved in the controversy without a jury. Upon setting up the defense, the employer shall serve a copy of the answer, setting up the defense, upon the employee or the attorney of record.

(b) Court deemed open at all times. For the purpose of hearing and determining controversies between an employer and employee or the dependents of a deceased employee and the employer arising under this article and Article 2 of this chapter, the circuit court shall be deemed always in session.

(c) Evidence. The decision of the court shall be based on a preponderance of the evidence as contained in the record of the hearing, except in cases involving injuries which have resulted from gradual deterioration or cumulative physical stress disorders, which shall be deemed compensable only upon a finding of clear and convincing proof that those injuries arose out of and in the course of the employee's employment.

For the purposes of this amendatory act, "clear and convincing" shall mean evidence that, when weighted against evidence in opposition, will produce in the mind of the trier of fact a firm conviction as to each essential element of the claim and a high probability as to the correctness of the conclusion. Proof by clear and convincing evidence requires a level of proof greater than a preponderance of the evidence or the substantial weight of the evidence, but less than beyond a reasonable doubt.

(d) Interpleader of adverse claimants to compensation. If at any time there are adverse claimants to compensation under this article, the employer, in submitting the claim to the circuit court, may suggest in writing the claimants, and they shall be required to interplead. The court shall determine and order to which claimant or claimants compensation is justly due, and the employer, upon complying with the order of the judge, shall be released from the claims of any other claimants thereto.

(e) Review. From an order or judgment, any aggrieved party may, within 42 days thereafter, appeal to the Court of Civil Appeals and review shall be as in cases reviewed as follows:

(1) In reviewing the standard of proof set forth herein and other legal issues, review by the Court of Civil Appeals shall be without a presumption of correctness.

(2) In reviewing pure findings of fact, the finding of the circuit court shall not be reversed if that finding is supported by substantial evidence.

(f) Discovery. Methods of discovery shall be determined and established in rules promulgated by this amendatory act and the rules established by the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure with the limitations of pre-trial discovery as set forth below. Additionally, the following rules of discovery shall apply to workers' compensation cases:

(1) Two depositions for each side shall be permitted without leave of court, however, any additional depositions shall not be permitted except with leave of court for good cause shown including, but not limited to, a claim by the employee for permanent total disability.

(2) Notwithstanding the limitations in (1) above, each party may take the deposition of every other party.

(3) No more than 25 interrogatory questions with each sub-part to be considered a question shall be permitted without leave of court for good cause shown.

(4) Certified sealed copies of records of medical treatment and charges therefor, whether from a physician, hospital, clinic, or other provider, shall be authenticated in accordance with Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 44(h), without further need for authenticating testimony. Copies of records obtained by one party shall be furnished by certified mail to the other party not less than 21 days prior to trial, unless the party offering the records can establish unusual circumstances justifying their admission despite the failure to make the exchange after receiving the records of a physician's treatment prior to trial, the party not offering the records of a physician's treatment shall, without regard to the limitation set forth herein, have the right to depose prior to trial the physician whose records of treatment are to be offered by any other party.

It is the intent of this section that limited discovery shall be available.

(Acts 1919, No. 245, p. 206; Code 1923, §7571; Code 1940, T. 26, §297; Acts 1992, No. 92-537, p. 1082, §26.)