Lawsuit over interpretation of occupational disease further fuels need for legislative fix

Employers were recently dealt a blow by the Western District Court of Appeals in a decision involving the legal issue of whether or not occupational diseases are covered exclusively by Missouri Workers’ Compensation Act.  The Western District Court of Appeals, in a 7-2 decision, ruled that workers’ compensation does not serve as the exclusive remedy for employees who may contract long-term, repeated exposure diseases, not set forth explicitly in statute. 

The Court, in a strange twist, did not address whether an employee was precluded from filing a claim under the Worker’s Compensation Act for repeated exposures of occupational diseases while also filing a simultaneous civil lawsuit for the same issue.  This results in uncertainty for employees and employers alike as to what remedy or forum a claim for compensation should be sought.  Under this decision, it appears an employee could pursue remedy through the workers’ compensation system and the courts.

“The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry warned of this potential problem during the last legislative session, but the issue was left unresolved,” said Richard AuBuchon, Missouri Chamber general counsel.  “This decision brings the issue to a much higher level of concern, and should send an even louder alarm to the Missouri Legislature that the problem needs to be addressed.”

The Missouri Chamber recently warned that 2005 worker’s compensation reforms failed to include the term occupational disease in the exclusive remedy section of the workers’ compensation statute.  Instead, the language of the statute now focuses on the term “accident,” implying that only a single isolated event leading to an employee injury can be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.  For decades employees who filed a worker’s compensation claim were precluded from filing a civil lawsuit against the employer for the same injury leading to the worker’s compensation claim.  It appears this long-standing rule of law is now gone for long-term, repeat-exposure occupational diseases.

During the 2011 Legislative Session, the Missouri Chamber advocated legislation to include long-term, repeated-exposure claims of occupational diseases in the statute.  The legislation was blocked by the Missouri Legislature, through work of trial attorneys wanting more litigation against Missouri employers to garner more legal fees on this issue.  More litigation on this issue does nothing to protect employees.

“Increasing litigation delays compensation to employees for injuries or occupational diseases and weakens businesses,” said AuBuchon.  “The only people who win by keeping this error in the law are trial attorneys.  As lawsuits over this issue continue to mount, it is hurting employers who are already struggling to protect and create jobs.”

The case can be found at: http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=49158.

For more information on this case, please contact Rich AuBuchon, general counsel/legislative affairs for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, at 573.634.3511 or raubuchon@mochamber.com.

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