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Friday, September 23, 2011

Bad Cases Make Bad Law

Guest Blog by Thomas M. Domer  

The Illinois legislature just passed a law in response to a notorious claim in which a Sheriff Deputy, driving more than 100 miles per hour while using his cell phone, crossed a median and slammed into a car, killing two teenage sisters.

The claim drew regional and national attention and ultimately resulted in a revision in Illinois’ workers' compensation claims that would prevent any State employee hurt at work from being eligible for workers' compensation if the injury happened during a forcible felony, an aggravated DUI, or reckless homicide, if any of those crimes killed or injured another person.

The law is much more restrictive than the initial media summaries blaring “State law bars State employees injured while committing crimes from receiving worker’s comp.”

This is another example of bad cases creating bad law. The Sheriff filed a workers' compensation claim for his injuries but an arbitrator concluded that his high speed and cell phone use was a “substantial and unjustifiable risk resulting in gross deviation” barring his claim. The Illinois legislature reacted to the media and public outcry.

In other states, notably Wisconsin, an advisory council meets annually to deal with such perceived excesses, and to change the law accordingly.

A few years ago I represented a worker who, despite his employer’s offer to re-employ him with his disability, chose instead to obtain vocational rehabilitation, which was ordered by a judge and the Commission. His claim seemed to run afoul of the express purpose of worker’s compensation in Wisconsin and other states, which is to restore the injured worker to a job.

After the case was reported, the employer and insurance carrier representatives on Wisconsin’s Advisory Council recommended (appropriately) this perceived loophole be closed, and the new law barred the employer’s liability for vocational rehabilitation benefits if the employer offered a job to the injured worker which was refused.

Since the early days of workers' compensation in Wisconsin the courts have liberally construed “in the course of employment.” Absent evidence of abandonment of employment, it is presumed employment continues, except if a deviation can be proved.

Poor judgment or negligence is not synonymous with deviation and an employee must willfully abandon job duties to be excluded. If an employee is injured while engaging in an activity and disobedience of an order of the employer solely for the employee’s own benefit, workers' compensation benefits will be denied. However, if the disobedient actions were in furtherance of the employer’s interest rather than the employee’s, compensation is granted.

As one workers' compensation veteran judge has noted, “even bad employees get compensation.” The no-fault nature of workers' compensation sometimes produces hard-to-swallow results.

Thomas M. Domer practices in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (www.domerlaw.com). He has authored and edited several publications including the legal treatise Wisconsin Workers' Compensation Law (West) and he is the Editor of the national publication, Workers' First Watch. Tom is past chair of the Workers' Compensation Section of the American Association for Justice. He is a charter Fellow in the College of Workers' Compensation Lawyers. He co-authors the nationally recognized Wisconsin Workers' Compensation Experts.