OKLAHOMA’S workers’ compensation court offers endless examples of why the state needs a new way to deal with claims filed by injured workers.
A Midwest City firefighter was awarded $15,100 last month for a knee injury. Was he injured lugging a hose to a blaze? Mounting or dismounting a fire truck? Carrying someone from a burning building? No. His knee locked up while he was digging out a gopher hole in his backyard.
Why was this case in workers’ comp court? The firefighter and his attorneys said he had first hurt the knee while running on a treadmill at work eight months earlier. More than one judge bought this argument.
Oklahoma’s workers’ comp system has gone to seed, fertilized through the decades by a handful of specialty law firms and a few high-profile comp attorneys who ensure that cases like the firefighter’s go forward. Most of the real work is done by secretaries and paralegals.
The state has a problem when a firefighter exercising on a treadmill tweaks his knee, reports it to his supervisors, then goes about his business as usual for eight months — until his knee gives him trouble while doing something else. Only then does he decide that the injury is work-related.
We have a problem when a worker falls off a ladder on a Monday morning and says his spill had nothing to do with the fact that he’d been using meth during the weekend. Or when a woman who is told she needs knee surgery decides the best way to pay for it is to claim she got hurt on the job. The state has a problem when, instead of telling these people that they’re straining credibility, attorneys say, “See you in court!”
The reason is obvious — legal fees. One attorney in the firefighter’s case earned $3,000. That’s 20 percent of the award, which was the maximum he could have gotten but also the standard fee in the majority of cases.
Attorneys funnel injured workers to doctors whom they know are likely to provide a diagnosis that helps their case. The firefighter went to a doctor who said the man had suffered 39 percent impairment. The city of Midwest City’s doctor, on the other hand, put the impairment at just 10 percent.
Such discrepancies are the rule, not the exception. It’s generally left to one of the workers’ comp judges to make the final call. In the firefighter’s case, a judge, an appeals panel and another judge all ruled in the worker’s favor.
Firefighters rallied at the state Capitol this week, in part to preserve a system that benefits them but not the taxpayers who pay their salaries or the businesses that employ the taxpayers. Only two states still use a judicial system for worker’s comp instead of a more equitable, business-friendly and taxpayer-friendly administrative system.
As long as Oklahoma retains its court-based system, these sorts of cases will continue. The punishing costs to businesses will only increase. Lawmakers working on reform need to dig the comp system out of its gopher hole. And they need to do this in the next few weeks.
Attorneys funnel injured workers to doctors whom they know are likely to provide a diagnosis that helps their case.