The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

December 10, 2013

Okla. Supreme Court hears workers' comp challenge

OKLAHOMA CITY — Opponents of Oklahoma’s new workers’ compensation law urged the state Supreme Court Tuesday to find it unconstitutional, arguing that in certain circumstances it would allow employers in the state to treat injured workers differently than other workers.

But attorneys for the state and business groups that support the law urged the state’s highest court to uphold it. The law was a top priority for Republican leaders who say the state’s previous system was a detriment to business and industry in the state. GOP Gov. Mary Fallin signed it in May.

The law changes Oklahoma’s court-based system to an administrative one. Supporters say it will dramatically reduce workers’ compensation costs to businesses, but opponents say cost savings will come at the expense of injured workers.

The lawsuit was filed by Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, the Professional Firefighters of Oklahoma and its president, Rick Beams. Their attorney, John McMurry of Oklahoma City, attacked the statute on several grounds, including an “opt-out” provision that would permit employers to create their own benefits plan for injured workers.

“We find it the most troublesome part,” McMurry said. He said the provision is an unconstitutional special law because it would permit employers to treat their workers differently than those who remain in the state’s administrative system.

“There are significantly fewer rights for the injured employee,” McMurry said. “The employer can do pretty much what he or she wants to. The employee has no choice.”

The lawsuit also attacks other provisions of the law, including those that would allow the use of American Medical Association guides and Work Loss Data Institute Official Disability Guidelines in workers’ compensation cases, which McMurry said is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative powers. McMurry also says the law would unconstitutionally delay an injured worker’s access to the state’s courts to seek compensation.

State Solicitor General Patrick Wyrick defended the statute and said it guarantees that injured workers have access to the states courts. Wyrick challenged allegations that the statute amounts to unconstitutional logrolling, or combining multiple subjects into one bill.

“There is no provision in this law that isn’t germane,” Wyrick said.

Wyrick also challenged McMurry’s claim that the law is an unconstitutional special law, arguing that it merely allows employers to opt-out of the administrative system.

“The Legislature doesn’t have any idea who’s going to opt-out,” he said.

Attorney Robert McCampbell, who represents The State Chamber, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the case marked the third time in the last 10 years that a challenge involving Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation system has been before the Supreme Court.

McCampbell urged justices to uphold the law and said the high court can merely sever any portions it finds unconstitutional rather than throw out the entire statute.

Supreme Court justices peppered attorneys for both sides with questions during their oral presentations. At one point, Justice Noma Gurich of Oklahoma City questioned whether the lawsuit is premature because the new workers’ compensation statute is not yet fully in effect.

“We don’t really know how this is going to work until we see how it works,” Gurich said.

Supreme Court justices took the case under advisement and did not say when they may hand down a ruling.

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