Nebraska’s highest court recently ruled that employers in workers’ compensation cases cannot hold a counterclaim to keep a plaintiff from dismissing their case voluntarily. In Interiano-Lopez v. Tyson Fresh Meats, the plaintiff filed a case in Nebraska’s workers compensation court asking the court to determine his employer’s liability as to an alleged injury in October 2013. Tyson, the plaintiff’s employer, answered with a counterclaim asking that the court also determine its liability. Eventually, the plaintiff requested that the court dismiss the case without prejudice so that he could file the same case in the Iowa workers’ compensation system. (At the time, the plaintiff lived in Iowa, while the Tyson plant was located in Nebraska) The judge dismissed the plaintiff’s case, but Tyson’s counterclaim continued. Before Iowa could adjudicate the plaintiff’s claim, the Nebraska court ruled in favor of Tyson with regard to the October 2013 injury.
On appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court, the court noted the alleged conflict in workers’ compensation statutes. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-177 allows a plaintiff to dismiss a case with the ability to refile if the case has not been submitted to the judge or if both parties agree. Meanwhile, Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-173 allows both parties in interest to petition the Nebraska workers’ compensation court to resolve a dispute about an employee’s workers’ compensation benefits. While the court did not consider Tyson’s counterclaim to be a “petition” under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-173, it also noted that to allow counterclaims would interfere with plaintiffs’ right to dismiss a case under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-177. It stated, “[w]e will not construe an employer’s right to file a petition under § 48-173 in a manner which negates a plaintiff’s right to dismiss a case under § 48-177”.
This case represents a blow to a defense strategy to keep plaintiffs from increasing employer costs. In this case, the court noted that the plaintiff sought to refile in Iowa because the benefits and law were more favorable to him. The employer’s strategy sought to protect itself from last minute dismissals to save money and costs. After this opinion, plaintiffs will be allowed to dismiss a case voluntarily without regard to an employer’s right to file a petition.