JEFFERSON CITY - The House approved a compromise Thursday that will move occupational diseases into the workers' compensation system.
It also fixes the state's troubled Second Injury Fund. House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, praised lawmakers who worked on the compromise.
“We haven’t run from it, we’ve embraced it and it’s been a heavy lift,” Jones said. “This will be one of the crowning successes of this legislative session.”
Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, said he was happy with the bill. In addition to raising the surcharge on businesses' workers' compensation premiums that fund the Second Injury Fund, it limits future liabilities for businesses.
“We get the trade-off of reform for Second Injury Fund that’s going to reduce the liability going forward,” Mehan said.
The bill places occupational diseases exclusively under the state’s workers’ compensation system, limiting the ability of employees suffering from such diseases to sue employers in civil court. The Missouri Supreme Court has ruled that occupational diseases is not included under the definition of “accident” in worker’s compensation laws, opening businesses up to civil suits from workers.
The bill also provides an enhanced benefit for occupational diseases from toxic exposure, with an even greater remedy for workers exposed to asbestos who contracted mesothelioma as a result. A person getting benefits under these remedies could not sue in court.
Worker’s diagnosed with the nine specific occupational diseases due to toxic exposure defined by the bill would be entitled to about $157,000 in compensation.
Under the law, businesses would have three options in dealing with potential mesothelioma suits.
The first option would be to join a new fund created by the bill called the “Missouri Mesothelioma Risk Management Fund,” which would be funded by members and pay up to $500,000 to an affected worker or their family. The second is to accept liability for mesothelioma under workers' compensation or another insurance method, which would again set the amount at $500,000.
If the employer decides not to buy into either option, a worker or worker’s family who is diagnosed with mesothelioma could sue them in civil court.
Richardson said the change was not a cap.
“It’s an additional benefit on top of what a traditional workers’ compensation would pay,” Richardson said.
House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis City, argued passionately against the bill, which received some support from his own party. He said he refused to put a price on a human life.
“I don’t believe that someone who is suffering, when someone is suffering a slow, painful death, should have a price tag put on their life,” Hummel said. “Juries look at the human factor and decide what pain and suffering those families have endured.”
Richardson said the enhanced benefit for toxic exposure disease was the best in the country.
Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said he supported the bill in part because it included post-traumatic stress disorder of police officers under occupational diseases and encouraged members to vote for the bill. Webber is a veteran.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Webber said. “Don’t let one or two things you disagree with get in the way of supporting the bill.”
The measure passed by bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate.