Oklahoma’s new workers’ compensation law violates the state Constitution in several ways and should be struck down, an attorney for two state lawmakers and a firefighter’s organization told a state Supreme Court referee Thursday.
“There are some very, very disturbing aspects,” Oklahoma City attorney John McMurry said during oral arguments before referee Greg Albert. “There is a lot before the court in this particular case.”
Among other things, McMurry said the law unconstitutionally delegates legislative powers and amounts to unconstitutional logrolling, or combining multiple subjects into one bill. But Oklahoma Solicitor General Patrick Wyrick and an attorney for business groups defended the law, saying it should be given a chance to work.
“The common theme is apparent here. … How are we going to handle workers’ compensation cases?” said attorney Robert McCampbell, who represents The State Chamber, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Albert said he planned to condense the attorney’s arguments into a report he will present to the state’s highest court next week. He said the court could decide whether to take up the case before the end of the month.
Legislation to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation system was signed into law by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin in May. It was a top priority for Republican leaders who say the state’s previous system was a detriment to business and industry in the state.
Among other things, the law changes Oklahoma’s court-based system to an administrative one. Supporters say the change will dramatically reduce workers’ compensation costs to businesses, but opponents have said any cost savings will come at the expense of injured workers.
The new law was challenged in a lawsuit filed in September by state Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, and the Professional Firefighters of Oklahoma and its president, Rick Beams.
McMurry said the lawsuit is not an attack on the Legislature’s attempt to transform Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation system into an administrative system. McCampbell said 47 other states have similar administrative systems.
Instead, the lawsuit attacks various provisions of the law, including those it says would deny treatment and compensation to injured workers under certain circumstances. The law would allow the use of American Medical Association guides and Work Loss Data Institute Official Disability Guidelines in workers’ compensation cases, which McMurry said is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative powers.
The lawsuit also attacks provisions of the law that McMurry said would unconstitutionally delay an injured worker’s access to the state’s courts to seek compensation and that would allow employers to “opt-out” of the administrative system and create their own benefit plan for injured workers.
Wyrick said the law does not bar access to the courts but requires that injured workers seek administrative remedies first.
“Every litigant gets their day in court,” he said.
McCampbell said the state’s largest chambers of commerce support the law and believe it should be upheld. However, if the Supreme Court finds that parts of it are unconstitutional, McCampbell urged the court to strike down only those provisions rather than invalidating the entire law.
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