JEFFERSON CITY — Business was booming at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
The Republican-controlled legislature sent fundamental changes to Missouri’s workers’ compensation law and new limits on lawsuit awards — two measures long sought by business interests — to the desk of Gov. Matt Blunt before the body’s spring break, which begins today.
Blunt promised both changes during his campaign last fall. He argues they’re necessary to make Missouri more attractive to businesses, a claim disputed by Democrats, who describe the changes as handouts to business owners that would come at the expense of the state’s workers. Former Democratic Gov. Bob Holden vetoed similar measures in each of the past two years.
The changes to the workers’ compensation system would narrow the number of injuries that qualify. Benefits would be awarded only when a job is deemed to be the “prevailing” cause of injury. Heart attacks at the workplace or car accidents while driving in a company car would not qualify. It would also increase the burden of proof placed on workers who claim injuries and step up the scrutiny given to the system’s judges.
The lawsuit limits would cap awards for pain and suffering at $350,000 in medical malpractice cases. It would also limit punitive damages to $500,000 or five times the amount given the plaintiff, except in cases in which there was a felony involved or the state is the plaintiff.
Republicans say the changes are necessary to reduce the number of frivolous cases that end up in litigation. They say the costs scare businesses and doctors away from Missouri, and the GOP touts the new laws as a way to make the state friendlier to businesses and to bring down the cost of insurance for doctors.
Besides setting new limits on legal awards, the lawsuit bill would prevent plaintiffs from “shopping” venues by limiting court action to the location of the injury or wrongful act.
Democrats complain that the new workers’ compensation law puts too much pressure on legitimately injured workers and disagree with the Republican argument for lawsuit limits.
“This is a cover to rewrite the rules to help big business and big tobacco,” said Rep. John Burnett, D-Jackson County.
The workers’ compensation system provides payments for medical care and lost wages to workers who are injured on the job. In addition to reducing the number of injuries that qualify, the bill sent to the governor’s desk would:
- Allow employers to make their employees use vacation or sick days to be tested for injury.
- Disqualify a worker fired for “post-injury misconduct” from receiving compensation.
- Reduce the amount a worker can collect if they are injured while in violation of safety regulations.
- Reduce the fees lawyers for injured workers can collect.
- Require a strict interpretation of the workers’ compensation laws and place the burden of proof on the injured employee.
- Increase the number of workers’ compensation judges from 26 to 40 and create a review process that would allow for a panel to vote judges off the bench.