The state Supreme Court rejected labor union challenges Tuesday to a 2005 law that limited the ability of some injured Missourians to get benefits under the state’s workers’ compensation system.
Business groups praised the court decision as a victory, though it was largely a technical one. The Supreme Court ruled that most of the labor union arguments were hypothetical and thus not ripe for a court to decide.
The case was unusual in several regards.
Supreme Court judges took an usually long 15 months to decide it, then took the rare step of apologizing for the delay within the text of their opinions. The court said: “While there are reasons for the delay, there is no justification for it.”
Also unusual was the plurality vote by which the case was decided. Five judges joined in two separate opinions to reject most of the unions’ arguments, though not always for the same reasons that a trial judge had ruled against the unions in January 2007.
Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith was joined by Judges Mary Russell and Patricia Breckenridge in an opinion stating that it was premature to address the constitutional validity of the provisions. They said the such claims would depend on the particular circumstances of an injured person, and the union lawsuit did not include any injured individuals.
But the trio of judges did declare that people excluded from participating in the workers’ compensation system because of a narrower definition of “accidental injury” under the 2005 law now could sue in court to try to win damages from their employers.
Judge Michael Wolff wrote a concurring opinion in which he was joined by Russell and Judge William Ray Price Jr. That opinion agreed most of the claims raised by labor unions were hypothetical. But it said it seemed “about as hypothetical” to grant a declaratory judgment that people excluded from the tighter workers’ compensation system now could turn to court.
Dissenting from both those opinions, Judge Richard Teitelman said he would have ruled the 2005 law violates workers’ constitutional rights to take their claims to court. By declining to directly rule on the merits of 2005 law, he said other judges left unresolved the question of whether Missouri’s workers’ compensation system provides an adequate remedy for injured workers.
Judge Zel Fischer did not participate in the case, because it was argued before he joined the court.
Missouri’s workers’ compensation system was created in 1926 as a way to resolve injury claims through administrative proceedings rather than the courts. The intent was to provide aid more quickly to injured employees while sparing employers from the costs and uncertainties of circuit court trials.
The 2005 amendments to the law were a priority for former Gov. Matt Blunt and the Republican-led Legislature, who claimed the system had become tilted against employers.
Among other things, the 2005 law required workers to show a “specific event during a single work shift” to be compensated for an accident, no longer allowing a “series of events” to qualify. It also required the accident to be “the prevailing factor” in an injury, instead of the previous standard of a person’s employment as “a substantial factor.”
During last year’s arguments, labor attorney Alan Mandel, of St. Louis, described the law as “the most draconian statute in the country.” He denounced various provisions as “egregious,” “horrendous” and “marching backwards into the 19th century.”
By contrast, business attorney Marc Ellinger, of Jefferson City, argued that the 2005 law merely returned a proper balance between employers and employees to a system that had been gradually skewed toward employees by previous court rulings.
Case is Missouri Alliance for Retired Americans v. Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, SC88368.
On the Net:
Supreme Court: http://www.courts.mo.gov/page.asp?id=27
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