Senate gives initial approval to workers’ comp reform

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By Tim Sampson
Missouri News Horizon

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri Senate has given first round approval and is expected to pass later this week a bill changing the rules for the state’s worker’s compensation program.

Senate Bill 572, perfected in a split voice vote on Wednesday, would protect coworkers from lawsuits related to on-the-job injuries and firmly place occupational diseases caused by toxic exposure outside the realm of workers compensation.

The bill, which now heads to the state House, does not include language related to financially troubled second-injury fund, which doomed a similar workers’ comp overhaul in the legislature last year.

Under this bill, Missouri workers would no longer be liable for injury caused to a coworker on the job unless it can be proven that they acted purposefully to cause harm. Even accidental actions that were found to be the result of negligence would be protected.

“This adds a standard of fairness to the law,” said bill sponsor, Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles. “Most workers are not covered for these types of lawsuits."

This legislation would also place occupational diseases caused by long-term exposure to toxic substances outside of the workers comp system and into the regular civil court system. Those in favor of the change argue civil court penalties could cost companies more and provide an incentive for employers to change their practices rather than shell out modest workers’ compensation settlements.

But to get the bill through the senate, Dempsey opted to drop controversial language related to the state’s second injury fund, which will likely be brought up in separate legislation later this year.

The second-injury fund is what pays workers’ compensation benefits to employees with pre-existing disabilities that are exacerbated by workplace injuries. The fund was established in Missouri and many other states around the time of World War II to encourage employers to hire injured veterans.

After lawmakers placed caps on second-injury fund contributions seven years ago, the fund has slipped into a financial crisis and faces insolvency. Some propose eliminating the fund all together in lieu of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws promoting the hiring of people with disabilities, while others say contributions from business should be increased to help fully fund it.

The bill faces one more full vote in the Senate before heading to the state house.