When the Republican-controlled Missouri Legislature passed tougher restrictions to its workers’ compensation laws in 2005, it was hailed by employers and insurance companies as a much-needed reform.

The 2005 changes clamped down on access to the system and narrowed the definition of “accident” and “injury.” More fundamentally, the decades-old law was changed to require that cases be construed “strictly” rather than “liberally.”

Six years later, it appears that the workers’ comp law reforms need reforming.

While it’s true that the changes to the law have produced the desired effect of fewer workers’ comp claims being filed and lower insurance premiums for employers, sloppy drafting of the 2005 overhaul legislation has produced unintended consequences for workers and employers. 

The most serious of those consequences is that more and more work injury cases that were traditionally handled in the workers’ compensation system are now being filed in civil court. Plaintiff attorneys say that because of the new gray areas in the law, it would be malpractice not to file some types of injuries cases — particularly occupational disease cases — in both circuit court and under the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Act.

A series of recent Missouri Appellate Court decisions has reinforced this practice turning what was once settled law into a confusing legal maze. In one of those cases analyzing the 2005 changes, a judge quipped that “Clearly the Legislature prefers jury trials.” That comment, dripping with irony, illustrates how off track things have gone in workers’ compensation since the 2005 reforms.

The sweeping reforms the state Legislature passed in 2005 have actually destabilized the Missouri workers’ comp system. The law is intended to resolve workplace injury cases expeditiously without the expense and delays of traditional litigation in civil courts.

The most important aspect of the Missouri workers’ compensation law is to get injured workers medical care and treatment quickly. This paramount goal is being compromised by the revisions which have placed some cases in legal limbo as attorneys, insurance companies and the courts haggle over what the new definitions in the law really mean.

Employers are footing the bill for added litigation expense as filing concurrent suits is becoming more common.

Many are quick to blame trial attorneys for exploiting the new ambiguities in the law. The fault should be assigned to the Legislature for overreaching with some of the reforms and for sloppy drafting of the law which is nothing new.

The Legislature should fix the problems it created this upcoming session. The 2005 workers’ comp reforms are causing Missouri employers heartburn.