Missouri workers' comp bill moves to governor; truckers upset by provisions detrimental to drivers

| 3/22/2005

Missouri lawmakers have approved legislation to make it harder to file workers’ compensation claims in the state. Truck drivers are among those adversely affected.

Lawmakers from both the House and Senate spent several hours in conference committee this past week working out differences in their versions of the bill before heading home for spring break.

They reached agreement on the bill’s language March 16 and forwarded it to Gov. Matt Blunt, who is expected to sign it.

The final version of the workers’ compensation legislation includes a provision offered by Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City, specifically addressing a lawsuit brought forth by OOIDA on behalf of owner-operators against a motor carrier based in Springfield, MO. A separate suit previously resolved is also included.

The wording of Stevenson’s amendment is as follows:

“In applying the provisions … it is the intent of the legislature to reject and abrogate earlier case law interpretations on the meaning of or definition of ‘owner,’ as extended in the following cases: Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Ass’n. Inc. v. New Prime, Inc., ; Nunn v. C.C. Midwest” …

The provision was added in response to an earlier House vote on an amendment to strike language that would have affected existing lawsuits against employers in the state.

That amendment, offered by Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, removed wording that sought to wipe out previous allegations of workers’ compensation violations from employers, including motor carriers.

During debate last month, senators dropped the provision from the bill only to have the language reinserted by a House committee prior to debate before the full House.

OOIDA, representing more than 6,000 Missouri-based professional drivers, fought in both chambers to have the wording removed from the bill.

Despite the association’s effort, supporters of the axed provision were successful at slipping in the wording offered by Stevenson – essentially canceling out the Pratt amendment.

In the OOIDA case, the Missouri Court of Appeals Southern District held that New Prime would have to defend itself against a civil class-action lawsuit brought by the truckers’ group. The suit charges the motor carrier wrongfully required certain drivers to purchase workers’ compensation coverage from it.

In March 2004, the Missouri Court of Appeals rejected arguments by New Prime that certain owner-operators fell outside the statutory definition of employee and that an individual’s exclusive remedy was to go to the Missouri Division of Workers’ Compensation, not the courts.

OOIDA, along with member Jeffrey Warta, filed the suit alleging New Prime engaged in a scheme by which it deducted workers’ compensation premiums from drivers in violation of Missouri law and, at the same time, considered itself the employer of the drivers when a workers’ compensation claim was made.

The central issue of the appeal dealt with whether Warta fell within the statutory definition of employee. That definition specifically exempts drivers who own and operate a truck.

Despite earlier efforts by OOIDA to clarify additional language in the bill relating to independent drivers, the House opted to keep a Senate-approved provision that would expand the definition of owner-operators who are currently exempt to include lease-purchase operators and lease drivers who have no ownership interest in the equipment they operate.

An amendment offered by Pratt and Rep. Tim Meadows, D-Imperial, sought to spell out specifically how the state’s workers’ compensation laws apply to owner-operators who are exempt from those requirements.

Reps. Jay Wasson and Steve Hunter, both Republicans, spoke against the provision during floor debate.

Wasson, R-Nixa, said the amendment would force companies to pay workers’ compensation. He said companies that charge back the costs do it as a convenience to the driver and to the owner of the truck. He described it as “good business.”

Hunter, R-Joplin, characterized the amendment simply as a competitive issue between one large trucking company and another large trucking company.

Legislators voted 86-71 against the Pratt and Meadows provision.

After the vote, Pratt remained convinced the failed amendment was the right thing to pursue for workers and Missouri public policy.

“I’m concerned other trucking companies throughout Missouri will now feel they must use this process to be competitive,” he said. “Ultimately, it will hurt the independent truck driver.”

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, found lawmakers actions troubling.

“Unfortunately, lawmakers that spoke against the amendment obscured the real issue. Owner-operators and other independent contractors in Missouri aren’t required to have workers’ compensation coverage. Workers’ comp is a benefit program designed for employers and employees,” Spencer said.

“It provides benefits to injured workers and liability protection and other benefits to employers. This isn’t a program that was ever designed for independent operators, so very few ever buy it.

“When a motor carrier or any other contractor requires an owner-operator to buy this coverage through them and for the carriers protection, the carrier receives benefits for which they haven’t paid and aren’t entitled. The carrier also creates the employer/employee relationship that can land them in court, or worse.

“Elsewhere in the bill, lawmakers took, in my opinion, wise steps to increase penalties for noncompliance with workers’ comp laws. But, in this instance, lawmakers seem to be inviting just the opposite.”

The bill would limit the number of workers in the state eligible for compensation. It tightens the definition of a workplace injury by requiring work to be “the prevailing factor” for the injury. Current law says the injury must be “a substantial factor.” People hurt traveling to and from work in a company-owned or subsidized vehicle would no longer be eligible for compensation under the bill.

It also would allow employers to require that employees use sick time or paid time off to recover from a work-related injury, and it would require doctors to use only “objective” medical findings about a worker’s injury, not “subjective” complaints about pain. In addition, the bill would require a “performance review for state workers’ compensation judges every two years. At 12 years, the judges would face re-approval by a review panel.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor