Lawmakers gave final approval on March 7 to legislation that would expand the type of ailments covered by the state workers’ compensation system, a move that supporters hope will make Missouri more attractive to businesses by lessening their potential litigation costs.
Senate Bill 572 would include occupational diseases under the workers’ compensation program instead of allowing such claims to be battled out in court. It also would restrict employee lawsuits against co-workers for injuries sustained on the job to instances in which the injury was “purposefully and dangerously” caused.
The Republican-led House passed the measure 87-68, sending it to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. The GOP-led Senate had passed the bill 28-6 last month on a largely party-line vote. The House failed to adopt a provision the Senate had approved that would have put the bill into effect as soon as it is signed by the governor. It is not clear, however, if Nixon actually will sign the bill or will instead veto it.
Nixon spokesman Sam Murphey said the governor is still reviewing the legislation, but had expressed concerns with the provisions of the bill that deal with occupational diseases.
The measure was a top priority of Republican legislative leaders and business groups. During debate, several House Republicans said that changes in co-employee liability will more fairly protect workers from having to pay large court judgments for injuries caused in accidents.
Insurer trade group Property Casualty Insurers Association of America is urging the governor to sign the bill.
Ann Weber, PCI vice president state government affairs, said the legislation “could help consumers and businesses by making Missouri a more stable environment to operate in by lessening potential litigation costs and protect co-workers from being sued for workplace injuries or deaths covered by workers compensation, except in cases of negligence. This bill will help restore the workers’ compensation system back to its original intent and ensure workers are fairly and quickly compensated for their injuries without costly and burdensome litigation.”
PCI noted that the bill addresses problems created by a court decision (Hooker v. Robinson) by prohibiting co-employee liability except for limited situations involving purposeful actions. In addition, the bill specifies that an employer cannot subrogate for an employee’s toxic disease caused by toxic exposure when the “employer caused the occupational disease.”
Occupational diseases, such as those caused by on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins, were removed from the workers’ compensation program under a 2005 law. Those cases have since been handled in civil courts.
Republicans say returning work-related diseases to the state program would give businesses a better idea of how much they owe employees.
“We’ve given more certainty and clarity to the workers compensation system and put it back to where it was supposed to be,” said Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. “We’ve been in flux now for a long time.”
Several Democrats took issue with moving those diseases into a system they say cannot fairly compensate people who suffer life-threatening diseases, such as those caused by asbestos exposure or toxic chemicals.
Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said the minority party had been open to including curable injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, in the workers’ compensation system. But he said those injuries aren’t similar to lethal diseases such as mesothelioma, a type of cancer that can be caused by exposure to asbestos.
“Our concern is for people with catastrophic, toxic disease, stuff that kills Missouri workers very savagely in a very short period time,” he said. “This bill comes up short on that.”
Some Republicans also took issue with the bill because it does not deal with the state’s Second Injury Fund, which is separate from the workers’ compensation fund. It pays benefits to people with disabilities who sustain additional injuries at their job.
Last year, both chambers approved versions of workers’ compensation legislation that included provisions dealing with the Second Injury Fund, but the chambers could not agree on a final bill. Senate leaders said last month that the Second Injury Fund was a primary sticking point in last year’s negotiations. This year, the Senate had removed provisions dealing with the Second Injury Fund from the workers’ compensation measure before it was sent to the House.
Last month, Attorney General Chris Koster said the fund is in danger of becoming insolvent, as its amount has declined since 2005, when employers’ contributions to the fund were capped at 3 percent of their workers’ compensation insurance premium.
Both chambers have introduced bills to deal with the Second Injury Fund separately.