Law limiting employee lawsuits passes House
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Law limiting employee lawsuits passes House

Date: March 7, 2012
By: Matthew Patane
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 572, House Roll-Call, Senate Roll-Call

JEFFERSON CITY - Employees might soon face restrictions on how much they can receive in damages from a workplace injury after the Missouri House of Representatives passed a bill that would limit civil lawsuits on employers.

The legislation changes laws by including occupational disease exclusively under workers' compensation and restricting employees from suing their coworkers for an injury sustained while on the job. Since occupational disease would be included in the coverage, workers could no longer sue a company in court, thus limiting the damages an employee could collect.

Spurred on by business interests, Republicans made changing compensation laws a top priority this session after attempts from last session died in a conference committee between the chambers. Republican leadership in both chambers have said changing laws concerning employees and businesses is important for the session. Businesses have a stake in the changes since they are responsible for providing funds for compensation coverage.

Occupational Disease and Coworker Liability

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles County, said the changes were necessary since the original bill in 2005 did not properly define "accident," which opened the doorway to a 2007 court decision. In the case, Franklin v. CertainTeed Corp., judges determined that legislative changes to the law in 2005 required that "accidents," and not occupational diseases, were covered under Workers' Comp coverage.

Democrats who oppose the changes to workers' comp say some employees who suffer from toxic exposure would not be properly compensated under the restricted coverage.

Rep. Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis City, spoke emotionally against the bill on the chamber floor and said the damages that would be awarded under workers' comp did not equal what people with occupational diseases go through. Hummel, who said he had lost family members to the effects of toxic exposure, said companies cared more about profits than they did their workers.

"This bill spits in those families' faces," Hummel said. "How many lives have been ruined, how many families have been torn apart because (those companies) didn't care about anything but their profits?"

Republicans, however, argue that workers' comp is a more efficient method of compensating employees since cases do not have to go through the court system. The House bill handler, Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said the bill does limit employees in this way.

"When you cut through to the meat of this bill, the bill includes provisions that help both employees and the employer," Richardson said. "(The bill) only puts workers' comp back its place that it has historically been in the state as the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries."

Dempsey said the bill also fixes a problem concerning toxic exposure, which was one of the reasons for the bill's failure during last session. In this session's version, employees could receive compensation coverage for a disease caused by toxic exposure and seek out damages from a third-party without having to repay coverage received from the employer.

In addition to placing occupational disease back under workers' comp coverage, the bill also addresses a major issue for Republicans, that of co-employee liability. In a 2010 appellate court case, Robinson v. Hooker, the court decided that a coworker could be held liable for an injury to a fellow employee, allowing coworkers to sue each other. Dempsey's bill changes the effect of this ruling to make it so that employees could only sue coworker's for an injury that came out of an intentional act, such as deliberately hitting another worker.

The House passed the bill with a 87-68 vote, with 16 Republicans voting against and one Democrat voting in favor. Last month, the Senate passed the bill along party lines 26-8.

Previous debate

Last session, lawmakers were unable to send a a bill to the governor because members of the House and the Senate could not agree over provisions dealing with the Second Injury Fund. This year, however, the House took up the Senate bill as a vehicle to pass the reforms.

The fund, which was established in the 1940s, provides benefits to workers with preexisting injuries who have sustained additional workplace injuries that add to the disability. Last session, lawmakers attempted to add an overhaul to the fund into workers' compensation laws, which helped kill the bill on the last day of the session.

Richardson said he thought there was still room to compromise on the Second Injury Fund and that there were multiple bills currently going through the legislature that could act as vehicles for it. Dempsey agreed that it was possible to use another bill to change language concerning the fund, such as another bill that he is sponsoring

The vote

During the House debate, a Democrat offered an amendment that would split the occupational disease and coworker liability provisions into two sections, but Republicans shot it down. If any changes had been made to the Senate bill, it would have to be sent back to the original chamber for further discussion. This debate would have to wait until after legislative spring break which starts on Thursday.

Although the House accepted the Senate's version of the bill, even without language concerning the Second Injury Fund, representatives voted against applying an emergency clause to the bill. The clause would have put the bill into effect immediately after the governor signed it. Dempsey said he wanted the clause to stop the trend of employees suing their coworkers

"(With) this co-employee liability, you're seeing more and more cases filed where employees are getting sued by other employees," Dempsey said. "I think the emergency clause would have just closed that window sooner."

If the governor signs the bill, the legislative changes would take effect until Aug. 28.

The worker's compensation bill is one of three Republican-backed bills before the General Assembly that would place restrictions on employee lawsuits. One of the bills, sponsored by Sen. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, limits protections for employees who file a discrimination lawsuit. Lager's bill is also an attempt to change Missouri statute after courts altered the law. In this case, Lager said he is attempting to bring state laws back into line with federal ones by requiring discrimination to be considered a motivating factor in employee termination instead of just a contributing one.

Dempsey's bill is the first of the session to be passed through both chambers and sent to the governor. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has 15 days to act on the bill. If he vetoes the bill, both chambers will need a two-thirds majority to override the veto, which would require 22 additional House votes in favor of the bill.