The Missouri Supreme Court is trying to determine if a workman’s compensation law is valid or unconstitutional based on its technical and unclear language.

Missouri Supreme Court – Image courtesy of Missouri Courts

The state Legislature changed the rules in 2014 (Senate Bill 1) for compensation when a second workplace injury occurs.  Starting January 1st of that year, new claims for benefits through the state’s Second Injury Fund were no longer allowed for people with permanent partial disabilities, only for those with permanent total disabilities.

The Second Injury Fund compensates injured employees when a current work-related injury combines with a prior disability to create an increased combined disability.

Douglas Cosby, a carpenter working for Drake Carpentry in southeastern Missouri’s Cuba who fell off a ladder in early January 2014, challenged the change.  He argued that conflicting language in the law must be harmonized to cover him.  He claimed that if it couldn’t be clarified, then it was so poorly written that it was unconstitutional.

Cosby had four prior injuries – including at least one suffered while he was working – all occurring before 2014.

After falling from the ladder and injuring his left knee and leg, he sought workers’ compensation and settled his claim against his employer for a 20% permanent partial disability of his left knee.

He then appeared at a hearing before an administrative law judge, who has the authority to approve settlements or issue awards to an injured worker under Missouri law.

Cosby and Second Injury Fund officials disagreed on whether he was eligible for permanent partial disability benefits after the Legislature changed the law (Senate Bill 1).  He also challenged the constitutional validity of the amended law.

The administrative law judge denied the claim for benefits, finding his injury occurred after the change to the law had gone into effect.  Cosby then took his case to the state’s Labor and Industrial Relations Commission.  Its board backed up the administrative law judge’s decision, which led to Cosby’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

Before the high bench Wednesday, attorney Marshall Edelman said the Labor and Industrial Relations Board incorrectly determined that Cosby couldn’t file for benefits that he contends are still afforded to Cosby.   “The commission interestingly didn’t say benefits weren’t awarded here,” said Edelman.  “They said it can’t be accepted as filed.  That doesn’t mean there are no benefits.  To take away someone’s right for a judge to listen to a case, to automatically lose without being heard is against the law”

The state claims the 2014 change to the law is consistent with its previous language.

But Supreme Court Judge Laura Denvir Stith saw vagaries in the statute.  At one point during Wednesday’s proceedings, she said that the provisions in the law are hard to follow because they’re, “very, very technical language and it’s not very clear in the way it’s written.”

Lawyer David McCain with the Missouri Attorney General’s office argued on behalf of the state.  He said the Legislature’s intent needed to be taken into consideration when interpreting the law and the changes lawmakers made to it. 

“It’s undisputed in this case that the General Assembly amended the workman’s compensation law during a period when the (second injury) fund was insolvent,” said McCain.

McCain further contended that the change was necessary because of the insolvency and stated that people with permanent partial disabilities are a bigger drain on the Second Injury Fund than those who are totally disabled. 

“The value of a total disability, for instance, is going to be much larger from a dollar standpoint,” McCain said.  “But the permanent partial disability claims are larger in number.  So, when you magnify those and add those up together, the outstanding balance and the potential of liability is going to be much greater (with the partial disability).”

Attorney Edelman pointed out on behalf of Cosby that the Second Injury Fund, which is financed by a surcharge on businesses, is meant to encourage those companies to hire disabled people. He said the cut to coverage for the partially disabled is a disservice to them and the businesses. 

“There’s two people who are going to be harmed,” Edelman said.  “It’s everyone in the state of Missouri, all the employees and employers are going to be very upset.”

Edelman said that if the state Second Injury Fund failed to cover partially disabled employees, then businesses who pay the surcharge would be resistant to hiring them. 

“If an employer is going to hire somebody knowing that, they have more incentive to discriminate than ever,” Edelman said.

After hearing the workman’s compensation case Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court could issue its decision at any time in the future.

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