Wednesday, May 23, 2012

LA Bill Eliminating Liberal Construction is Bad Policy

"Disputes concerning the facts in workers' compensation cases shall not be given a broad, liberal construction in favor of either employees or employers; the laws pertaining to workers' compensation shall be construed in accordance with the basic principles of statutory construction and not in favor of either employer or employee."

This is the preamble to Louisiana Senate Bill 763 by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington.

In addition, SB 763 states that the provisions of the workers' compensation law "are based on the mutual renunciation of legal rights and defenses by employers and employees alike; therefore, it is the specific intent of the Legislature that workers' compensation cases shall be decided on their merits."
The statement of legislative intent is, of course, since this is politics, a trade for an increase in some benefits for injured workers, increasing burial benefits by $1,000 to $8,500 and providing an earlier start to payment of lost wages – beginning two weeks after injury rather than six weeks..

But in my view this is a dangerous exchange and one that is not being given well thought out consideration by the employer community.

On its face employers might think that they are just righting 100 years of wrong - that workers' compensation laws are liberally construed in favor of the injured worker and unfairly penalize employers.

What happens when they are not liberally construed however leads to troublesome results for employers.

Missouri demonstrated that following a 2005 amendment that mandated courts to "strictly construe" the law. Consequently Missouri courts concluded that injured employees could sue coworkers for negligence, even if the injured worker received workers' compensation benefits, and that occupational diseases were not covered under the workers' compensation system thus opening up employers to civil liability for those claims.

The purpose of workers' compensation laws is to keep claims of work injury out of the civil courts and cap damages. This provides stability and predictability so that businesses can properly plan their budgets and can spread the risk of claims over a broad base.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI)urges support for the bill, stating on its website that the bill, "is a LABI-sponsored measure to eliminate some of the friction and excessive litigation from Louisiana’s workers compensation (WC) system. The bill (1) requires courts to apply the WC statutes according to their clear provisions and not in favor of one party over another, (2) establishes a procedure for resolving indemnity benefit calculation errors and disputes without resorting to court, (3) allows payors to avoid penalties and attorney fees by continuing benefits while disputing a claim, and (4) clarifies that a dispute over medical treatment cannot proceed before the medical director rules on such treatment pursuant to the medical treatment guidelines."

LABI urges, "If you want an improved and less costly WC system in Louisiana, please contact your representatives to urge their support for SB 763."

Jennifer Barber Valois, an attorney with the Barber Law Firm in Lafayette and a member of the Louisiana Association for Justice, told WorkCompCentral that the change is likely to increase litigation, require more workers’ compensation judges and create higher costs for the system, adding, “I think it’s bad for everyone.”

Seems to me that LABI is backwards on its vision in this case, and in contradiction to the organization's goal of ensuring the best interests of business in the state. SB 763 will do more harm to business than good. It is a shortsighted position by the business lobby to reverse the current interpretation of Louisiana's workers' compensation laws. Unintended consequences will certainly prevail and Louisiana business is not going to be happy.

I agree with Valois - SB 763 is bad for everyone except perhaps carriers in the state which will be able to deflect costs onto other systems and society in general which will not necessarily result in lower

SB 763 was approved by the House Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations Monday on an 8-6 vote and is ready for a vote by the full House.

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