by Paul G. Engel
Industry Week (1985)
It seemed like a good idea at the turn of the century when state workers-compensation statutes were first being drafted across the country.
The legal underpinning for each of these laws, the exclusive-remedy doctrine, holds that in exchange for guaranteed compensation levels in the event of a job-related injury, workers give up the right to sue their employer for additional damages.
Today, most businessmen still think the theory makes sense--but the Ohio Supreme Court doesn't. In three related precedent-setting decisions issued on the last day of 1984 by a lameduck Democratic majority, the seven-judge tribunal took a hammer and chisel to the exclusive-remedy foundation holding up the Buckeye state's comp system.
In Hamlin v Snow Metal Products Inc., Gains v City of Painesville, and Michael Village v General Motors Corp., the justices ruled that:
ARMAGEDDON? Naturally, business is forecasting a workers-comp Armageddon in the state.
The new wide-open legal tests will mock any injury's collective common sense "since [the tests] are so vague and subjective," argues the Ohio Manufacturers' Assn. (OMA) labor relations chief, Joseph Krabach. An employer either intended to cause an injury or he didn't, Mr. Krabach reasons, "but not both at the same time."
To charges that rampant double dipping encouraged by hungry lawyers will become the norm for injured workers, one plaintiff's attorney contends that he's duty-bound to inform clients of their new options. "If I don't," says David Goldense, a partner with the Cleveland-based firm of Dubyak Molnar Meany & Goldense, "I can be hit with a malpractice suit."
Employers bemoaning costly new legal trends should look in a mirror for the cause, he argues: "Workers compensation is supposed to be a shield for both employers and employees, but too many businesses use it as a sword against workers. Benefits are baloney in most cases; you might as well be on welfare."
COMPENSATION FOR AGAIN? Richard Geltzer, an Akron consultant who advises corporate clients on workers-comp strategies, worries that any and all "normal wear and tear" resulting from aging processes will be compensable under the court's cumulative-injury ruling: "The presumption will now be that a bad back was caused by bending over on the job." In short, concludes the OMA, health insurance for aches and pains.
Nationally, other large industrial states, notably Michigan and California, have already tackled the cumulative-injury specter, with varying degrees of success. But the Ohio court's "substantially certain" doctrine represents a disquieting escalation in the continued erosion of exclusive remedy, says Samuel Roth, an employee-benefits staffer with the U. S. Chamber of Commerce.
And business-sponsored solutions to reverse the trend can be hard to come by, he continues: "Legislation can be introduced to negate the effects of a state high court's workers-comp decision, but it's often declared unconstitutional. And when state-wide referendums are held, they're usually defeated by wide margins; nobody's going to vote against another person's right to sue."
One thing is certain: Ohio's state workers comp insurance rates are going up. How much? "Ask me in three years," jokes consultant Mr. Geltzer.
One management lawyer isn't laughing, however. For clients who call with questions on the recent court rulings, he has a one-word piece of advice: "Relocate."
Source: Industry Week, Feb 4, 1985 v224 p27(2).
Title: Exclusive-remedy doctrine loses in Ohio court. (workers compensation)
Author: Paul G. Engel
Subjects: Workers' compensation - Cases Employer liability - Cases
Gov Agncy: Ohio. Supreme Court - Cases
Magazine Collection: 29J5659
Business Collection: 16Q0709
Electronic Collection: A3631764
Full Text COPYRIGHT Penton Publishing Inc. 1985