WHAT OTHERS SAY: Joplin tornado case uncovers workers' compensation embarrassment

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 | 10:38 a.m. CDT; updated 11:16 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, November 1, 2011

It was easy to work up a healthy dose of outrage over the plight of Mark Lindquist.

Lindquist is the Joplin group home worker who, as the deadly May 22 tornado bore down on the building where he worked, threw himself on top of a mattress to protect the three men with Down syndrome he helped take care of day after day.

Despite his heroism, the residents died. Lindquist ended up in a coma. When he recovered, he had $2.5 million in hospital bills.

His employer's workers' compensation company denied his claim for financial assistance, arguing that his injuries from the tornado could have just as easily happened at home.

The company, Accident Fund Insurance Company of America, quickly reversed itself last month after The Joplin Globe and The Associated Press brought its callousness to light.

But here's a twist in this morality play that should alarm Missouri workers:

The day after Lindquist received his good news, a Missouri appeals court issued a ruling in an unrelated case that said, in effect, the insurance company in Lindquist's case had every right under Missouri law to just say no.

Sadly in 2005, the Missouri Legislature created this situation, mostly on purpose.

In the Oct. 25 ruling in the case of Sandy Johme v. St. John's Mercy Healthcare, the Eastern District Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that changes in the 2005 law justify a denial of workers' compensation when an employee's injuries were sustained in activities that just as easily could have happened to an average person at home.

On June 23, 2008, Johme, a billing representative for St. John's, was making coffee at work, as so many people do every day. She slipped on the floor near the office kitchen area. She twisted her ankle and injured her right hip in the fall.

The court's majority ruled that the way the law currently is written, it doesn't matter whether Johme was at work when she was injured, because she was performing a task that she also performed at home.

What that means for Missouri workers is that getting injured at work would no longer be covered by the workers' compensation system for people who perform any number of activities that they might also do outside of work, such as driving, lifting a box or, say, throwing yourself on a mattress during a tornado.

The ruling, combined with a related Kansas City case awaiting a state Supreme Court ruling, could turn the workers' compensation system on its head. As much as many Missouri businesses complain about the system, that's not necessarily to their benefit, either.

The changes to the 2005 law so narrowed the workers' compensation system that they opened up employers to much more expensive civil lawsuits. This is particularly so in cases of occupational disease, where penalties for negligent behavior could be significantly higher.

The tragedy of Lindquist's case is not that it took bad publicity to shame an insurance company into doing the right thing, it's that Missouri lawmakers gave that insurance company the right to deny the claim in the first place.

Lawmakers could have headed the court off by fixing the law last year, but they failed to find a compromise that protected workers' access to the courts while limiting business liability.

The clock is ticking.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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Gregg Bush November 3, 2011 | 5:03 p.m.

More dangerous than
Not having a job? Getting
Hurt while on the job.

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