By Jared S. Renfroe

Anyone who regularly practices workers’ compensation law knows that the Tennessee’s Workers’ Compensation Act was completely revamped in 2014 for injuries occurring on or after July 1, 2014. In 2016, the 109th General Assembly passed some laws that changed Tennessee’s Workers’ Compensation Act, again, and this article highlights and summarizes some of these changes that are important to attorneys, claims representatives, employers and injured workers in Tennessee.

1) Shortening of Time Period for Injured Workers to Give Notice of Injury

Under law existing prior to July 1, 2016, injured workers were required to provide notice of their injury to their employer within 30 days of the injury. However, under the newly passed law, which amends Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-201(a) and (b), this 30-day period has been shortened to 15 days, which appears to express an intention to give more teeth to the notice defense that has not traditionally been a strong defense in workers’ compensation cases. This amendment is effective as of July 1, 2016 for injuries occurring on or after July 1, 2016.

2) Maximum and Minimum Compensation Benefit Changes

The recent amendment also updates the minimum and maximum weekly benefit rates for injuries occurring between July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017 as follows:

• Temporary Disability Benefits – The maximum weekly benefit rate is $976.80, an increase from $943.80.

• Permanent Disability Benefits – The maximum weekly benefit rate $888.00, an increase from $858.00.

• Minimum Weekly Benefit – The minimum weekly benefit rate for both temporary and permanent disability benefits is $133.20, a change from $128.70.

3) Revisions to Law that Allow for Reasonable Attorneys’ Fees in Certain Circumstances

Public Chapter 1056 (SB2582/HB2416), which is subject to a two-year sunset provision, meaning that it applies to injuries only occurring between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2018, amends Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-226(d) allows the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims to award reasonable attorney fees and reasonable costs, including reasonable court reporter fees and expert witness fees, for depositions and trials incurred when the employer:

• Fails to furnish appropriate medical, surgical and dental treatment or care, medicine, medical and surgical supplies, crutches, artificial members and other apparatus to an employee provided for in a settlement, expedited hearing order, compensation order or judgment; or

• Wrongfully denies a claim by failure to timely initiate any of the benefits to which the employee is entitled, including medical benefits under Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-204 or temporary or permanent disability benefits under Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-207, if the workers’ compensation judge makes a finding that such benefits were owed at an expedited hearing or compensation hearing.

However, it is important to note that the term “wrongfully” has not been defined, so we will have to wait on future guidance from the legislature or case law to determine the parameters of this term, including if the term “wrongfully” will require an element of bad faith on the part of the employer.

4) Drug-Free Workplace Law Amendments

The new law amends Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-9-101(a) by adding a sentence allowing employers who obtain certification as a drug-free workplace to renew this certification annually without repeated annual training of existing employees, if the employer certifies that all existing employees have undergone training at least once and have acknowledged annually in writing the existence of the employer’s drug-free workplace policy.
Additionally, the law amends Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-9-11(d) to not require an employer to provide annual education or awareness training for each employee if all existing employees have undergone such training at least once and have acknowledged annually in writing the existence of the employer’s drug-free workplace policy.

5) Allows for Ombudsmen Who Are Licensed Attorneys to Provide Limited Legal Advice

The new law amends Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-216(e)(3) for injuries occurring on or after July 1, 2016, to allow ombudsmen who are licensed attorneys to provide “limited legal advice” but prohibits them from representing any party as their attorney and from making attorney referrals. However, the term “limited legal advice” is not defined in the amendment, so it will be interesting to see how this phrase is interpreted.

6) Sunset/Expiration Date Found in Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-242(a) was Removed

Public Chapter 816, signed into law by Governor Haslam on April 14, 2016, and effective on April 14, 2016, made additional minor changes to Tennessee’s Workers’ Compensation Act. In the author’s opinion, the most significant amendment is that the sunset/expiration date found in Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-242(a) was removed. This section allows workers’ compensation judges to award additional benefits in extraordinary cases.

Almost everyone with whom I have personally spoken about the 2014 changes to the Workers’ Compensation Law expected some uncertainty and suspense about how the changes would affect their practice. The “new law” has now been effective for two years, and I have heard mixed results from attorneys (both for injured workers and employers), injured workers, claims representatives and mediators about what they think of the “new law.” As I expected, many of the comments were very negative and critical of the changes, while others were positive and accepting of the changes. The new changes described above will surely bring about more criticism and comments, although not likely to the extent that it was for the widespread changes that 2014 brought to the law.

Jared S. Renfroe is an attorney for Spicer Rudstrom, PLLC. He focuses his legal practice on litigation throughout Tennessee. His concentrates primarily in premises liability, business and commercial representation, employment practices litigation, professional liability, insurance defense and workers’ compensation.