State Chamber Seeks Compensation Bill Overhaul

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The Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce Industry is far from "married" to the workers compensation bill passed this week by the state House of Representatives Judiciary Committee _ but it's not ready for a divorce.

Mike Seney, manufacturing director of the chamber, pointed to a number of provisions he said were repugnant to the business community. A lot could change by the time House Bill 2576 gets to the floor.

The objective of business was to get a "vehicle" passed by this week's deadline to report bills from committee. A vehicle is any bill on the subject of interest which can continue to be amended and acted on. Therefore, any workers compensation measure technically could serve as a vehicle.

Since the Senate passed Senate Bill 752, which contains Gov. David Walters' workers compensation reform plan, there are two live vehicles.

House Bill 2576 is 57 pages long and definitely loaded. It combines the eight to 10 workers compensation bills filed in the House into one measure. Seney was kind of irked about it, after it failed to pass an initial vote Monday.

"I looked at this bill like a pickup truck," he said. "It was a good pickup truck, but just before the committee meeting it got loaded up with a lot of garbage. I have absolutely no problem with anybody voting against that bill," he said the next day.

Judiciary Chairman Bill Settle, D-Muskogee, made the decision to have a single bill.

"If I had afforded a hearing to each and every author, we probably wouldn't have had time to hear more than half the bills we were able to hear," Settle said. "It would not have been fair to the authors.

"I do this quite often, if several bills can be combined, to save time and provide room for other members' bills to be heard," he said.

The chamber's problem wasn't just with the size of the bill, but a number of amendments Settle put in it, according to Seney.

"If those amendments had stayed in there, we would have had to ask for votes against our own bill," Seney said Tuesday. By Friday, thanks to a petition signed by a majority of committee members, House Bill 2576 was brought back to the committee and passed by 6-5.

Now it's pending in the full House, and if Seney was true to his word, there'll be a whole lot of amending going on.

One of the Settle amendments objectionable to the state chamber is a provision that deems it "unlawful for a corporation, employer, agent of an employer or manager. . .to engage in neglect or reckless conduct by allowing or creating a situation of unreasonable risk and probability of death or great bodily harm." It carries up to a $1 million fine.

"A manager at a McDonald's or Sonic drive-in could be held personally liable over this," Seney said. The terms "neglect," "reckless conduct" and "by allowing" "could never be defined in 20 years in courts of this state," he said. He also cited the phrase "great bodily harm."

"You could `allow' somebody to drive with a broken seat belt that you didn't know about" and be liable, Seney said.

Settle, a lawyer, said: "These types of problems are currently defined by law in many cases on a daily basis. It therefore would not create new definitions or cause someone not to understand what they mean under the law."

Seney said: "The employees who also create dangerous situations for others are not involved in this."

Settle said: "When you sue a corporation or company, if an employee has been part of the negligence, you always name the employee. The wrongful acts of an employee or agent can be imputed to the employer."

Another amendment that Seney found bothersome would restrict workers compensation insurance coverage to the State Insurance Fund or to self insurance associations. The state fund is a quasi-state agency that originally was an insurer of last resort, but has grown exponentially in the coverage it provides today. …