Changes to bill limits worker lawsuits

A proposed workers’ compensation bill also reduces fees lawyers can collect.
Friday, February 25, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:32 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A House committee’s changes to a Senate bill tightening eligibility requirements for workers’ compensation prompted one lawmaker to warn Missourians: “Don’t get hurt. Don’t get hurt. Do not get hurt.”

Rep. Tom George, D-St. Louis County, said the House version of the bill would increase the involvement of lawyers while politicizing the role of the judges who hear worker’s compensation cases.

Republican supporters have said reducing the need for lawyers is one goal of the bill.

Repeating many of the objections Senate Democrats made when the bill passed through the Senate earlier this month, George said changes to the system must address the interests of workers, employees and insurance companies.

“You cannot just take one part of it and put it all on the worker that he’s going to get less of a settlement or anything along those lines, and that’s what they’re trying to do,” he said.

But supporters said lawyers would be required only for frivolous cases that a worker should not win in the first place.

“It’s a little bit of a red herring to say that will create more lawsuits,” Rep. Todd Smith, R-Sedalia, said.

“I think that if it’s a fraudulent or frivolous claim, the attorney will have to question if he wants to take that case.”

The House made significant changes to language crafted after serious negotiations between a handful of senators. Lawmakers, however, said some of the compromises reached during those negotiations might return to the bill when a conference committee of senators and representatives meets to hammer out differences.

The Senate version is expected to be the basis of the conference negotiations.

“This bill is just too extreme,” Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, said of the House version.

“It’s a blatant attack for an injured worker not to be compensated while injured. And hopefully, they will change their tune while it’s debated through the House.”

Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, said that despite changes made by the House, the Senate compromise remains intact.

“Now there are some things that maybe (Green) didn’t want in that the House would really like to see in, and that’s typical,” Loudon said.

“The House is always able to do a stronger or more overreaching version of a bill, and the Senate is always going to be the moderating body.”

Among the House changes are provisions allowing employers to require workers to use paid leave to seek treatment, reducing the fees attorneys can collect from injured workers and requiring gubernatorial appointment and Senate confirmation for workers’ compensation judges.

The legislation would also bar people from collecting workers’ compensation while receiving unemployment or workers’ compensation from another state. Democrats said the system would suffer from the proposed politicization of judges’ appointment, but Republican lawmakers argued the system already is political.

“I don’t think you’re going to see people rejected because of party affiliation, but if you see someone that has a horrible track record, I think it’s legitimate for the Senate to be able to question them on that,” Smith said.

“Right now, it can very easily be argued that it’s political.”

The House Rules Committee will set time parameters for floor debate next week.

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