On the corner of my desk sits a coffee cup that reads: “A good lawyer knows the law; a great lawyer knows the Judge.” At first blush, the cup is just meant to garner a laugh or two. For those of us who practice Nebraska workers’ compensation law, however, the quote has a more practical meaning.
If you’re familiar with the work comp system in Nebraska, you know that there are only seven Judges appointed to hear all disputes that arise under the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act. With a work force population of just over 1,022,000, it’s no secret that the seven Judges are certainly kept busy. In 2020 alone, there were over 119 workers’ compensation trials. Each trial resulted in a written decision where the Judge was tasked with applying the law to facts. This is in addition to the hundreds of motion hearings that the Judges heard.
Compare these numbers to the only 20 workers’ compensation related opinions that were released by the Nebraska Court of Appeals and Supreme Court in 2020. It doesn’t take a scientific calculator to see that there are drastically more trial court decisions every year than there are appellate level decisions. So why is this significant, and what does my coffee cup have to do with this? Ponder this: suppose a lawyer only reads the appellate court decisions that come out every year. There’s no disputing it’s important to read those cases – after all, law established by the Nebraska Supreme Court, or the Court of Appeals is in fact “stare decisis” and is therefore binding law. But contained in the 119 trial court decisions is equally (if not more) valuable information. Contained in those 119 trial court decisions are the thoughts, opinions, and legal interpretations of the only seven people who decide workers’ compensation cases. While all seven of the workers’ compensation judges are tasked with holding plaintiffs and defendants to the same statutory law, that doesn’t necessarily mean the judges are perfect clones who handle and evaluate their cases in the same exact way. It can and frequently does happen that the judges dispute how a particular statute should apply, or what exactly is binding case law. How Judge Fitzgerald interprets Form 50 rules may not necessarily be the same as Judge Martin or Judge Block. Indeed, how Judge Hoffert interprets the Supreme Court’s holding in Picard v. P&C Group 1 may differ from Judge Fridrich’s interpretation of the exact same case. And that’s how it clicks: A good lawyer knows the law; a great lawyer knows the thought process of the judge who will ultimately apply it.
After researching, reading, and studying every single trial level decision written over the last several years, it’s time to share the wealth of that information with you. Written for lawyers, adjusters, employers, or even just the lay person who wants to learn more about workers’ compensation law in Nebraska, the CPW Compendium series is meant to be a tool to help educate others about the patterns being seen at the trial court level. While trial court decisions may lack the fanciness of being “stare decisis,” make no mistake that knowing your judge is one of the most valuable tools a Plaintiff or Defense attorney can and should have before ever evaluating or trying a case. After all, being a good lawyer is merely knowing the law. Being a great lawyer is knowing the judge who applies it.
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