North Carolina Supreme Court Issues Opinion Discussing when an Attorney’s Fee Award is Proper in Workers’ Compensation Cases

There are many ways that a prevailing party in a lawsuit can win an award of attorney’s fees, which means the other party must pay the prevailing party’s costs incurred in hiring an attorney. This can make a substantial difference financially, especially if the lawsuit has gone on for a long period of time. In some instances, the losing party will fight the prevailing party’s request for attorney’s fees. As dedicated North Carolina workers compensation lawyers, we are well versed in the rule that governs claims proceedings, including when you might be entitled to having your attorney’s fees reimbursed.

In a recent lawsuit, the North Carolina Supreme Court considered whether a lower court acted correctly in denying to award attorney’s fees to the plaintiff under a North Carolina statute. The statute in question, N.C.G.S. §97-90(c), state that where an attorney has an agreement for a fee, it shall be filed with the Commission and if the agreement is not unreasonable, it shall be approved.

The worker was employed as a bartender when he suffered two back injuries in 2010. He sought workers’ compensation benefits, which he was awarded. The plaintiff underwent back surgery and therapy, but his disability did not improve and continued to worsen. He eventually required attendant care medical services, which the defendants agreed to provide if they could take the depositions of two of the plaintiff’s doctors. The plaintiff and his attorney modified their retainer agreement at this time to include fees for the attorney in the event that attendant care services were awarded.

A dispute arose and the defendant ceased to provide attendant care. Eventually, the Commission awarded the plaintiff retroactive attendant care compensation and approved an attorney’s fee of 25% of the value of the retroactive attendant care based on the plaintiff’s retainer agreement with his attorney.

The defendant appealed and the superior court reversed the North Carolina Industrial Commission’s award of attorney’s fees. The plaintiff and the defendants appealed. A full Commission panel concluded that the fee agreement providing the attorney compensation from the attendant home care award was unreasonable and violated North Carolina statutes governing fee agreements.

The plaintiff appealed to the superior court and provided an affidavit explaining the amended fee agreement. The superior court vacated the Commission’s finding and upheld the original award of attorney’s fees. The Court of Appeal then vacated that order finding that the superior court exceeded the scope of its authority to review the reasonableness of the Commission’s award of attorney’s fees according to North Carolina workers’ compensation statutes when it took into consideration new evidence that was not before the Commission.

On review to the Supreme Court, it concluded that the superior court had jurisdiction to consider additional evidence like the affidavits when determining whether the award of attorney’s fees was reasonable. Reviewing the record, it found that the superior court based its determination on proper factual findings and acted in accordance with North Carolina statutes and that the award of attorney’s fees was proper. Based on this, it vacated the lower court’s ruling and provided instructions for the Commission to reinstate the award of attorney’s fees to the plaintiff.

If you were injured on the job, you may be entitled to various categories of benefits and compensation. Our diligent and responsive team of North Carolina work injury lawyers are prepared to help you ensure that you explore every possible right of recovery and that you receive the fair outcome that you deserve during this painful and stressful situation. To schedule your free consultation, call us at 888-258-1087 or contact us online to get started.

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