Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Texas Wildfires Demonstrate Work Comp Relevancy

I have opined many times that perhaps workers' compensation is becoming irrelevant in today's society because of limitations to compensability that reforms tend to implement and because of expanding coverage by federal fiat of medical care (more generally referred to as "ObamaCare").

But until there truly is a single source for medical care, workers' compensation continues to be very important to society where there is the basic, disaster or catastrophe, claim involving injury or loss of life.

WorkCompCentral this morning ran a story by our Central Bureau Chief, Bill Kidd, on the effect of the current Texas wildfire disaster and the number of claims just now starting to be filed, including two tragic death claims of volunteer fire fighters. These are the situations that workers' compensation was meant to address in the most fundamental way, and the type of situations we tend to forget about in the ongoing debate of whether workers' compensation is doing its job for both employers and employees.

When I think about the broad application of workers' compensation in a catastrophe situation where there is a broad scope of damage and injury - a big California earthquake comes to mind, but there are also devastating hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, torrential flooding in the Missouri basin - workers' compensation should be there to do the job that is generally not thought about except for those in the risk management profession: taking care of the people that put their lives on the line for the betterment of society.

Those folks, first responders and other workers who are called upon, and dutifully respond, to disaster, sometimes receive special benefits or treatment under state work comp systems. At times such special treatment is called into question because of abuse - reports of California Highway Patrolmen's "Chief's Disease" come to mind. But those statutes were written with disaster response in mind.

We can never so accurately script laws to alleviate abuse and reward honesty, but in our legal system we tend to lose sight of how law works. Interpretation of a statute must be done in light of the facts surrounding the dispute. When reform hysteria rises to legislative action, it is typically where application of the law has strayed on a factually borderline case, causing overreaction where more judicial restraint is probably a better remedy.

Regardless, when we see natural disasters impacting the lives of the working men and women who put their lives on hold for overall societal benefit, it is up to society to return the favor and provide treatment for injury and compensation where the most unfortunate can no longer provide for themselves or their family.

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