Client Bulletin #408

2.27.09

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In a long-awaited decision, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected this week claims asserted by labor and non-profit organizations that “business-friendly” amendments to the Missouri workers’ compensation statute were unconstitutional.

Although the Court’s decision should be welcomed by Missouri and Kansas employers, it should be noted that the Court rejected the claims on the ground that they were premature, not necessarily because they lacked merit. The Court said, “[N]o individual injured person or group of persons are joined in this action, and the claims that these provisions unfairly will deprive any particular person of the person’s constitutional rights are, at this point, completely hypothetical.” (Emphasis added.)

The Court also reaffirmed existing precedent holding that parties who are not covered by workers’ compensation may pursue common law remedies, such as negligence or other tort claims.

The case was unique for several reasons, not the least of which was that oral argument was conducted more than a year ago. The Court acknowledged the delay, and made the curious comment: “While there are reasons for the delay, there is no justification for it.”

The plaintiffs were 71 organizations – 66 labor unions, four labor councils, and one not-for-profit – who alleged that the changes, made in 2005 by Republican former Governor Matt Blunt and the Republican-led Missouri legislature, were unconstitutional. Blunt had made it known that a goal of his administration was to remedy what many perceived as an increasing pro-employee slant to the workers’ compensation law. Among other changes, the 2005 amendments require that an accident must be the “prevailing factor” in an injury, whereas previously it had to be only a “substantial factor.” The reduction in benefits that applied when an employee was impaired by drugs or alcohol was increased from 15 percent to 50 percent.

The plaintiffs contended that the amendments deprived workers of due process and access to open courts, among other allegations.

Although this decision is good news, Missouri and Kansas employers should continue to handle workers’ compensation injuries carefully. Sometimes it is more economical to admit coverage than to defend a tort claim for negligence. Employers should consult with counsel in making these decisions. If you would like help in this area, please contact any attorney in Constangy’s Kansas City office, or the Constangy attorney of your choice.

Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP has counseled employers on labor and employment law matters, exclusively, since 1946. A “Go To” Law Firm in Corporate Counsel and Fortune Magazine, it represents Fortune 500 corporations and small companies across the country. Its attorneys are consistently rated as top lawyers in their practice areas by publications such as Chambers USA, Super Lawyers, and Top One Hundred Labor Attorneys in the United States. More than 100 lawyers partner with clients to provide cost-effective legal services and sound preventive advice to enhance the employer-employee relationship. Offices are located in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas and California. For more information, visit www.constangy.com.

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