UPDATE: Workers' compensation ruling could lead to more lawsuits, attorney warns

Wednesday, February 25, 2009 | 3:02 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — A workers' compensation attorney predicted Wednesday that a state Supreme Court ruling will lead to a flood of lawsuits against employers by injured Missourians.

The state's highest court on Tuesday largely rejected labor union challenges to a 2005 law that limited the ability of some injured Missourians to get benefits under the workers' compensation system.

But a plurality of the court ruled for unions on one count. It said people excluded from the workers' compensation system because of a narrower definition of "accidental injury" now could sue their employers in court.

St. Louis attorney Alan Mandel, who argued the case for unions before the Supreme Court, said the ruling tore a huge hole in the workers' compensation law.

"I think the floodgates of litigation are open," Mandel said. "I think businesses are going to be shocked. This is a horrendous decision for businesses."

But business groups also are claiming victory, because the Supreme Court did not grant labor union requests to declare the law unconstitutional.

The court said it was premature to address the constitutional validity of the law's provisions. Judges said such claims would depend on the particular circumstances of an injured person, and the union lawsuit did not include any injured individuals. The court's decision left open the possibility for such lawsuits in the future.

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.

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."

For example, Mandel said carpal tunnel injuries, which typically arise from a progression of events, now could fall outside the workers' compensation system and be brought as lawsuits as a result of the Supreme Court decision.

But the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry indicated Wednesday that it was not too concerned about an influx of lawsuits from people claiming work-related injuries. Chamber president Dan Mehan said it's appropriate that the Supreme Court recognized the exclusion of some kinds of cases from the workers' compensation system.

"The bottom line is that these cases should not have been in the workers' compensation system in the first place," Mehan said. "That was the key problem with the system prior to the 2005 reforms. Anything and everything was considered compensable under the system. This abuse was driving up costs and keeping workers truly injured on the job from receiving benefits."

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