JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Nearly two dozen years after Monroe Gunter retired from a long career at a Missouri power company, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer often caused by exposure to asbestos.
Gunter sued his former employer, claiming its negligence subjected him to asbestos particles that eventually led to his illness. He died before a jury ruled against him. Yet Gunter's lawsuit is cited by business groups as an example of how Missouri's workers' compensation system has gone awry and is again in need of reform in order to improve the state's economy.
When the Missouri Legislature convenes Jan. 9, Republicans plan to use their new supermajorities to try to prohibit lawsuits such as the one Gunter filed. Their goal is to force claims for occupational diseases to go through the workers' compensation system, an administrative proceeding where the maximum amount of money awarded to harmed workers could be significantly less than through a successful jury verdict.
A similar bill was vetoed this past year by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. He said at the time that it would be wrong to eliminate the right to sue for workers who suffer from deadly work-related diseases, such as a mesothelioma.
But the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry contends Missouri now is the only state in which the workers' compensation system is not the exclusive means of resolving claims about occupational diseases.
"If that is true, I think that's disastrous to our economic job creation model," said House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka.
Incoming Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, also has pledged that changes to the workers' compensation system will top the agenda for 2013.
Republicans have long claimed that businesses needed greater protection against the uncertain costs of sometimes questionable claims about workplace injuries. In 2005, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt signed a law making it more difficult for people to win workers' compensation cases by requiring them to prove that work was the "prevailing factor" for an injury instead of merely a "substantial factor." The 2005 law also required a strict application of its provisions instead of one "liberally construed with a view to the public welfare" as had been the case in the past.
That resulted in some apparently unanticipated consequences when courts began interpreting the 2005 law.
In April 2010, St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker allowed two separate lawsuits to go forward against businesses from people seeking money for their allegedly work-related mesothelioma. Dierker cited the requirement to strictly construe the law while noting that the narrowed definition of an accident in the 2005 law meant that claims over occupational diseases no longer had to go through the workers' compensation system.