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Workers’ compensation decisions too often favor employers

Hattiesburg American, 8/8/10

By Joe Atkins
Hattiesburg American
August 8, 2010

It has been 25 years since I wrote my first column about workers' compensation in Mississippi, and as I sit down to write about it again I keep coming up with French expressions like "déja vu" and "plus a change, plus c'est la même chose" ("the more things change, the more they stay the same").

Just like in 1985, efforts to improve the lot of workers who are injured on the job are being thwarted by conservative oliticians more familiar with corporate board rooms than assembly lines. Just like in 1985, Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom of most indices in the way it treats injured workers and their families.

However, something has indeed changed: The lot of those workers is even worse than it was in 1985. In fact, according to Jackson plaintiffs' attorney Roger K. Doolittle, it's so bad that "this is unprecedented in Mississippi jurisprudence."

How bad is it?

A year ago this month, the state House Insurance Committee held a hearing on findings in a study ordered by Doolittle that showed the three members of the state Workers' Compensation Commission - Chairman Liles Williams, John Junkin, and Augustus Collins II (who recently stepped down)- siding decisively with the employer in most cases.

Although the committee discussed the possibility of a state investigation into the commission and its actions, House Insurance Committee Chairman Walter Robinson of Bolton told me recently that such an investigation is "still in limbo."

"You've got judges that collectively have the highest experience rate in the history of the (workers compensation) act, and they are being reversed at the rate of about 80 percent," Doolittle said, of the reversals of decisions favoring the employee.

"What they want is for people like me to stop representing poor people."
Jackson attorney John Jones agrees with Doolittle's findings.

"I've been doing this for 25 years, and I've never seen a commission this conservative. ... The irony is that by statute and by history, (workers compensation) is supposed to be tilted toward the worker."

Not in Mississippi, the last state in the nation to adopt a workers' compensation law. Statistics can be hard to find, but some 80 workers in Mississippi died in work-related injuries in 2008. Jones estimates approximately 13,000 workers were injured on the job every year, and many more may go unreported.

Williams, whose first six-year term ends in December, said Doolittle's numbers are misleading because they don't include affirmations of court rulings that would present a more balanced picture. Even so, his own numbers show a pro-employer tilt: 59 percent of cases for the employer.

"I don't think it is accurate to say we are biased," said Williams, a veteran political figure in Mississippi. "We objectively make what we believe is the right decision based on the law."

For Jackson attorneys Lance Stevens and Rogen Chhabra, the problems is the makeup of the commission itself, all ubernatorial appointees, none of whom had prior workers' compensation experience. Due to the complexity of workers' compensation law, "I would prefer that all three commissioners were lawyers," Stevens said.

Jaribu Hill, executive director of the Greenville-based Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights, said that "more of a fair and even playing field" is needed for workers in Mississippi.

"We go back every year to the same well to draw water. It's frustrating and demoralizing."

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