Christopher Rhule got some really bad news from the Texas Supreme Court last week.
The court said that after Rhule went through a trial over a breach of settlement with the city of Houston — a trial in which a jury was on his side, and after the Court of Appeals for the First District upheld the decisions of the trial court judge and the jury — it was all for nothing.
It was all for nothing because the trial court never had jurisdiction.
Anyone in Rhule’s shoes would be wondering, how in the hell does this happen? And I’m wondering the same thing. I’ve covered a lot of law and have never seen anything this boneheaded. Issues of jurisdiction this basic are supposed to get sorted out way before a plaintiff goes through the expense of a full-blown jury trial and then two levels of appeal.
Before we get into what went wrong, we have to review what made Rhule go to court in the first place. In 1988, this Houston firefighter suffered an on-the-job spinal injury. Houston, as a self-insured city, contested Rhule’s worker’s compensation claim.
The parties settled in an agreement that gave Rhule $14,000 and “lifetime open reasonable and necessary medical [expenses]” in exchange for releasing the city from any further injury-related claims.
The city lived up to its part of the bargain until 2004 when, despite Rhule’s continued pain, it decided much of his medications and treatments were no longer “reasonable and necessary.”
Rhule did not file a lawsuit until 2008. I’m assuming the four-year delay was due to the customary medical treatment run-around, the exchange of demand letters and pre-suit research. Once Rhule did get a jury, he was awarded $127,500 for past pain, mental anguish, legal fees and costs.
Counsel for the city had been saying all along that the court didn’t have jurisdiction, because Rhule should have first gone back through the administrative process of the Division of Worker’s Compensation. In response, Rhule’s attorney claimed that process was exhausted long ago.
John Powell of The Powell Law Firm in Pearland, Rhule’s attorney, told the supreme court, “There is no new or different injury and the City and its representatives were fully aware of such fact when they intentionally, … and wrongfully denied Mr. Rhule a replacement pain pump, quit paying for his doctor visits, and medications.
“The ongoing pain management he required back in 1988 is still the same medical care and treatment he requires today. Everyone knows that.
“The City’s attempt in this appeal to characterize Mr. Rhule’s ongoing permanent back pain management as a ‘newly-arising’ dispute requiring a new decision by the Department of Insurance is a complete fabrication,” Powell concluded.
The supreme court, after reminding the lower courts of their responsibility to make sure they have jurisdiction before taking a case, then torpedoed Powell’s argument. The court said the operative law was the law in effect when Rhule got injured.
The Legislature changed worker’s compensation law in 1989 and said the new law was applicable to cases filed on or after Jan. 1, 1991.
The law, as it affected Rhule, said that whenever “any dispute arises” from settlements, it “shall be first presented by any party to the Division within six months from the time such dispute has arisen (except where ‘good cause’ is shown for any delay) for the Division’s determination.”
The supreme court reversed Rhule’s case and then dismissed it from the Texas court system for lack of jurisdiction. Now Rhule is clearly far beyond the six month deadline and it’s up to him to convince the Worker’s Compensation division that he had “good cause” for the delay.
I’m guessing the division is not going to be sympathetic to his plight. But what perplexes me is how this case ever got as far as the supreme court.
There is nothing unusual about a personal injury plaintiff having to rely on the law that was in effect at the time of the injury. How could so many lawyers and judges get something this fundamental this wrong for so long?
If there’s a Texas worker’s compensation lawyer out there that can explain this to me, please do.