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Missouri House approves bill on suing co-workers

Missouri House approves bill on suing co-workers

May 16th, 2012 by Wes Duplantier, the Associated Press in News

Missouri lawmakers likely will not pass any legislation moving claims related to deadly work-related diseases into the workers' compensation system, Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey said Tuesday.

The state Legislature will instead settle for a measure that prevents employees from suing their co-workers over accidental on-the-job injuries, the least controversial aspect of a three-part plan that also set out to change the state's workers' compensation system and its Second Injury Fund.

In a 122-29 vote Tuesday, the House gave final approval to a bill dealing only with the co-employee lawsuits. The Senate unanimously passed the measure earlier in the day. It now goes to Gov. Jay Nixon.

The Democratic governor vetoed legislation that contained similar provisions earlier this year, but in an April letter to Senate leaders, he said he largely agrees such lawsuits should be eliminated.

The measure passed Tuesday leaves out more controversial provisions that would have included claims for diseases caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in the workers' compensation system. Such a proposal had been included in the legislation that Nixon vetoed and was the primary source of the governor's objection to that bill.

"Failure by lawmakers and the administration to reach compromise on these issues is a significant blow to Missouri employers and employees," said Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which pushed for the changes. "Both employers and employees will pay a heavy price."

Nixon said in his veto message that the workers' compensation system could not adequately compensate workers for debilitating diseases that will eventually take their lives and said such cases should be handled by civil courts as they currently are.

But about six weeks after his veto, Nixon sent a letter to Dempsey and Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan saying he would sign legislation moving the claims, as long as sickened workers received an "enhanced benefit" in the form of weekly payments larger than those given to workers with other types of permanent work-related disabilities.

The amount the enhanced benefit should be ultimately became the sticking point in negotiations between lawmakers and the governor, Dempsey said.

Dempsey had put forth proposals this week that would have given sick workers a weekly payment as high as 200 percent of the state's average weekly wage- payments of about $1,546.16 per week- for 200 weeks, or nearly four years. Such a settlement would total more than $309,000.

But Dempsey said Nixon had rejected such offers. He said the governor had wanted victims to receive a total of more than $700,000, a figure that business groups said would be unworkable.

"It's like fighting the seven-headed mythical hydra," Dempsey said of negotiations on the toxic exposure provisions. "Every time you cut one of its heads off, two appear in its place."

A spokesman for Nixon declined to comment on whether Dempsey's figure was correct or about legislation dealing with toxic exposure cases.

The bill on co-worker lawsuits also leaves the fate of the Second Injury Fund unresolved. The fund pays benefits to people with disabilities who sustain injuries at their jobs. It is financed by a surcharge on companies' workers' compensation insurance premiums, but the fund's balance has fallen steadily since the surcharge was capped at 3 percent in 2005.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said the fund has about $9.45 million on hand and more than $17 million in unpaid bills as of this week.

The co-employee liability bill is HB1540.