Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 29, 2018

Workers’ compensation court to celebrate anniversary

Workers’ Compensation Claims Court Judge Thomas Wyatt, court paralegal Jodi Downs and Workers’ Compensation Claims Court Judge Audrey Headrick - Photograph by David Laprad

The judges of the local Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims aren’t waiting until 2019, when the court will be five years old, to commemorate a milestone. Rather, they’re inviting their colleagues in the Greater Chattanooga legal community area to help them celebrate their four-year anniversary.

Judge Thomas Wyatt and Judge Audrey Headrick, along with paralegal Jodi Downs, are inviting local lawyers, judges and other legal professionals to join them on Monday, July 2, 9-10 a.m., at their 1301 Riverfront Parkway location for refreshments and remarks.

The Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims came into existence on July 1, 2014 after the Tennessee State Legislature passed legislation in 2013 that created a new, administrative court within the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (now the Tennessee Division of Workers’ Compensation).

Previously, workers’ compensation claims were handled in the chancery and circuit courts. “It had been that way since 1919, so this was a historical and fundamental change to how things were done,” Wyatt says.

Wyatt adds the legislature created the court to ensure more consistency in the outcome of claims across the state. “The same facts could be heard in a case in Kingsport and a case in Memphis and the awards would be different,” he says. “Today, the results are more predictable across the state.”

Cases are also handled in a more efficient manner. When the state’s chancery and circuit courts were hearing claims, a case could take two to three years to reach a resolution. Now, Wyatt says claims are typically resolved within six months to a year.

“I’m proud of the expeditious manner in which we’re handling cases,” Wyatt says.

When the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims was launched in 2014, Bureau Administrator Abbie Hudgens assigned eight judges across the state. Hudgens appointed Judge Wyatt to the Chattanooga-based court, which hears claims from as far north as Monroe County and as far west as Van Buren County.

“We started with an office and a computer and went from there,” Wyatt says.

One year later, Hudgens assigned four more judges across the state, including Headrick in Chattanooga. In 2016, Wyatt and Headrick were permitted to hire paralegal Jodi Downs to serve as their legal assistant.

Hudgens tapped Wyatt to be a workers’ compensation judge based on his 32 years as an attorney representing clients in workers’ compensation and personal injury cases. Wyatt spent the bulk of that time with Summers & Wyatt (now Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers).

He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and his Juris Doctor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Headrick is a graduate of the University of Memphis College of Law, now the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. After earning her Juris Doctor, Headrick worked as a defense attorney for two years before becoming a staff attorney with the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

Headrick remained in that position until 2015, when Hudgens appointed her to the bench.

The local court actually lacks a physical bench, although that will soon change. The small conference room in which Wyatt and Headrick have been hearing claims will soon be converted into an actual court room, complete with a bench that’s already been built.

But neither judge is complaining about the lack of judicial furnishings. Rather, each one considers their current appointment to be the highlight of their career.

“Being part of a judicial start-up and seeing that system evolve from nothing into something has been the most enjoyable thing I’ve done,” Wyatt says.

“My most memorable moment was simply being appointed,” Headrick says. “It was a career goal I was pleased to accomplish.”

Wyatt and Headrick are eager to celebrate the court’s success with their colleagues and have reserved a large room on the second floor for the occasion.

“We’re looking forward to seeing everyone in the community,” Headrick says.

Sources: Some information from the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development