CHARLESTON – The House of Delegates has passed a bill that would restore the original purpose of the deliberate intent exception to the state workers’ compensation system.
House Bill 2011 passed by a 59-38 vote on Feb. 10 and was sent to the state Senate.
“This bill strikes a good balance between protecting the rights of both employees and employers, while also making sure that our small businesses aren’t driven out of business by the potentially devastating effects of lawsuits,” said Del. Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay), the lead sponsor of the bill. “This bill helps restore the predictability of the court system, while also a preserving the right to a fair recovery.”
Not everyone saw the bill the same as Hanshaw.
The president of a statewide group of trial lawyers says the bill passage is “a mistake that risks the lives and safety of West Virginia workers.”
“The legislation provides immunity to employers that endanger their workers because their worksites violate governmental and industry safety standards,” West Virginia Association for Justice President Anthony Majestro said. “The burden of proof is so high under the proposal, that it is easier to prove a murder case than a deliberate intent case like those addressed in the legislation.
“As written, there would be no liability even for catastrophic accidents like those at Sago, Aracoma and Upper Big Branch. In a state where thousands of workers have been killed and injured, it is outrageous that the House passed a bill that gives employers immunity when they know they are risking the lives of their workers.”
Majestro said corporate special interests are to blame.
"Now we know what was behind the millions of dollars corporate special interests funneled into this state to buy themselves our state Legislature – a get out of jail free card and a bump in corporate profits when they don't have to compensate the West Virginians who've been hurt or the families of those they've killed,” he said. "Our entire justice system is based on personal responsibility. If you murder someone with a gun, you get life in jail.
“If an employer knowingly violates established safety laws and 10 workers are killed, that person should be held accountable too, but under this the company and its leaders get off and the families are left with nothing. It's wrong.
“Our deliberate intent statute serves the twin goals of encouraging safe practices and corporate accountability. Under this bill, workers will be less safe and no company will held accountable."
The leader of a tort reform organization, however, said his group is pleased with the bill’s passage.
HB 2011 “will bring West Virginia more in line with surrounding states in dealing with workplace injuries,” said Roman Stauffer, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. “This legislation will clarify definitions and establish standards for deliberate intent causes of actions, which have long been needed in West Virginia.
“As long as our neighboring states continue to have legal systems that better handle workplace injury claims, West Virginia will be at a competitive disadvantage in attracting jobs and boosting our economy.”
Majestro said HB 2011 and other legal reform measures being taken up by the new Republican-led Legislature are wrong for West Virginia.
“We believe that the voters elected this legislature to fight the so-called ‘War on Coal’ not wage a ‘War on Coal Miners’ and our other employees,” Majestro said. “This bill, and a number of other bills being considered, are examples of the Legislature’s wrongheaded focus on enhancing corporate profits at the expense of safety and accountability.
“Given West Virginia's long history of on-the-job injuries, particularly in the coal mines, the availability of deliberate intent claims is a crucial tool to help keep our workplaces safe and hold companies accountable for unsafe practices when they intentionally fail to comply with established safety rules.”