Just compensation

Friday, March 11, 2005

The Missouri workers' compensation program, approved by voters in a 1926 referendum, provides a method of resolving on-the-job injury claims administratively rather than in court. It also was intended to even out a negligence liability system previously weighted on the employer's side.

Prior to the program's adoption, an employer was not liable if an injured worker accepted a job knowing of its dangers or if the accident was caused by another worker or by the claimant's own negligence.

Now Gov. Matt Blunt and Republican legislators want to reform the program to reduce rising workers' comp insurance rates they fear is driving businesses out of the state. The reform effort occurs as the number of claims is declining but the average cost per claim is rising.

House and Senate bills being debated would:

* Redefine "accident" to include only events in which work was "the prevailing factor" instead of a "substantial factor" in the condition.

* Exempt from coverage anyone injured traveling to or from work in a company-owned or -subsidized vehicle.

* Exempt from coverage anyone who was legally drunk when the injury occurred on the job.

The House version further gives preference to objective medical findings over a worker's complaints of pain and limits attorneys' fees.

Union leaders helped craft the Senate version but are opposed to the House bill. The legislature will have to decide how far it wants to go. But reform that focuses on injuries that were sustained while a worker was actually at work -- and sober -- should make sense to everyone.

--Southeast Missourian