The North Carolina Industrial Commission is the state agency that oversees all workers' compensation cases in North Carolina. The Commission has "exclusive subject matter jurisdiction" over the "North Carolina Workers' Compensation Act." In layman terms, that means that the Industrial Commission is the court system that has jurisdiction over any case that an injured worker might bring under the workers' compensation laws in this state.
Federal employees in North Carolina have a different system that is administered by the federal government. If you get hurt in North Carolina, or anywhere else but your job is sufficiently connected to North Carolina, and you are not a federal employee, then your case comes under the North Carolina Workers' Compensation Act and will be administered by the Industrial Commission.
Industrial Commission Process
The Commission is an administrative agency and part of the executive branch of state government. The Commission administers the Workers' Compensation Act and provides dispute resolution for any disagreement that arises under the Act. For instance, if an injured worker’s case is denied, he or his lawyer can request a hearing and it will be heard, or “tried” in a courtroom setting by a “Deputy Commissioner” of the North Carolina Industrial Commission. That individual makes the initial findings of fact and the initial decision in a disputed workers' compensation case. Either party can then appeal administratively to the “Full Commission.” In an appeal to the Full Commission, the lawyers file briefs with the Commission based on the record of evidence that was created at the Deputy Commissioner level, and then the lawyers travel to Raleigh and make an oral argument or presentation to a panel of three Commissioners at the Industrial Commission. There are seven Commissioners that are appointed by the governor, in conjunction with the legislature, to serve on the Industrial Commission and each one of them takes his or her turn as an administrative judge on these appeals. Under the law, this panel of three commissioners is the entity that is allowed to determine the facts of the case in every workers’ compensation dispute.
A party has another appeal above the Industrial Commission to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. But the facts as determined by the Full Commission are binding on the parties at that level. The Court of Appeals only reviews a Full Commission decision to determine whether the Full Commission made an “error of law.” For that reason, you see many cases appealed to the Full Commission but very few of those cases are appealed further to the Court of Appeals. If a party does take his case to the Court of Appeals and loses, then he may have an opportunity to appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the highest court in North Carolina and the appeals process would end with the Supreme Court. As a practical matter, the appeals process usually ends with the Court of Appeals because most cases do not have an automatic right to be appealed to the Supreme Court.
The judges or Commissioners at the Industrial Commission mostly handle workers' compensation cases. Many of the Deputy Commissioners have worked at the Commission for many years and have developed a great deal of knowledge and expertise in worker's compensation law.
A History of Successful Industrial Commission Litigation
If you are looking for a lawyer to help you with your workers' compensation case, it is important to find a lawyer who has a track record of trying or litigating cases before the Deputy Commissioners and the Full Commission at the North Carolina Industrial Commission. I frequently say that one of the best tools I have as a lawyer is the ability to go to court to get a dispute resolved. I firmly believe that, and if you want a lawyer who knows how to use all of the tools available to that lawyer, look for a lawyer who has a history of successful litigation before the Industrial Commission. You can research lawyers of North Carolina on the Industrial Commission website. The drop-down menu for "links" includes a searchable database that allows you to put down a lawyer's name as your search term, and it will pull up all of the case decisions that that lawyer has obtained going back approximately 13 years. As of March 1, 2018, searching that database for Bob Bollinger as the attorney showed 142 case decisions accumulated over the period of time covered by the database. Searching other well-known lawyers, particularly those that advertise extensively on television, revealed a much smaller number of cases that were actually litigated to a decision at the Industrial Commission by those individual lawyers. This is important to know when you are choosing a lawyer.
Going It Alone
It is possible for an injured worker to handle his case without a lawyer in front of the Industrial Commission, but it is not advisable. The North Carolina Workers' Compensation Act is available in a standalone volume. This book includes the Workers' Compensation Act (Chapter 97 of the North Carolina General Statutes), and the case notes and annotations that are published with the statutes in the official statute books. The standalone version of this book, which is owned by virtually every lawyer that practices workers' compensation law, has 973 numbered pages and an index of an additional 44 pages. A Board Certified Specialist in Workers' Compensation Law, such as Bob Bollinger, is fully familiar with the contents of this statute book and has studied it for years in order to obtain the designation "Board Certified Specialist in Workers' Compensation Law" from the NC State Bar. Before you try to represent yourself on a workers’ compensation case, go to the public library and find a copy of the General Statutes, and take a look at “Chapter 97” - the NC Workers' Compensation Act. Do you really want to attempt to represent yourself in light of nearly a thousand pages of law and related statutes that could apply to your case? The lawyer for the insurance company who will be opposing you in court has his own copy of that book and is also quite familiar with it, so that is what you will be up against trying to represent yourself!