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The Constitutionality of Comp Questioned

Oftentimes when we first meet with a client regarding a work injury, the client emphasizes why a work accident occurred due to the 'fault' of his or her employer. While the failure of an employer to comply with a state statute may increase an award due an injured employee, an employer subject to Missouri's workers' compensation laws is responsible to furnish compensation to an injured employee "irrespective of negligence" on the part of the employer.

Missouri passed its first workers' compensation law in 1931, with the purpose of providing workers a system for "speedy and assured compensation" without the need to prove the fault of their employer; the tradeoff being that employees could no longer sue their employer outside of the workers' compensation system. The balance struck by workers' compensation laws passed across the country is often referred to as a "grand bargain."

The fairness and constitutionality of this 'grand bargain,' however has recently been called into question in at least one state. Late last year, a court in southern Florida declared the entirety of the Florida workers' compensation system unconstitutional. In a 21-page Order entered in Padgett v. State of Florida, the Judge called the Florida workers' compensation system "facially unconstitutional" in large part because the state legislature repealed workers' ability to receive permanent partial disability benefits. "Permanent partial disability benefits" (PPD) are those benefits awarded to an injured worker for partial loss of wage earning capacity. The Florida legislature eliminated PPD benefits entirely by 2003 without replacing those benefits with a reasonable alternative. Following the 2003 changes, Florida workers still receive benefits if they are permanently and totally disabled (PTD benefits), but they receive no compensation for the reduction in their earning capacity caused by a partial disability. Even PTD benefits terminate when the worker turns seventy-five or after five years, whichever event occurs later.

Florida's legislature may be the best example of a governing body pushed into betraying its constituents by large insurance companies. Unfortunately it is not the only example. Thirty-three other states also reduced benefits in 2003. Missouri passed revisions to its workers' compensation laws that narrowed the scope of compensable claims in 2005. Missouri's changes led to workers whose claims had been excluded by the new law being able to sue their employer directly similar to the way workers would litigate their claims prior to the passage of the first workers' compensation laws. Therefore, in certain circumstances, the changes accomplished the very result the workers' compensation laws were originally created to eliminate.

These changes were spearheaded by the pro-business and insurance lobbies under the auspices that workers' compensation insurance rates were skyrocketing. However, the average cost of workers' compensation insurance per $100 of workers' wages had steadily fallen (from $2.71 to $2.00) beginning in 1991, far before the clamor for changes to the existing laws. The results of the pro-insurance legislation passed in the majority of states are impoverished workers and record insurance company profits.

The balance achieved by the 'grand bargain' at the inception of the workers' compensation system in many states needs to be returned if the system is to continue. The changes to Missouri's laws do not go as far as the changes in Florida, but you can help to ensure your rights are being protected by participating in the political process and contacting your legislator(s). If you feel like you are not receiving the compensation to which you are entitled because of a work injury, please contact us today.

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