Friday, December 29, 2006

Party Like It's 1906!

In an appalling decision, the Ohio Supreme Court has denied a young man workers' compensation benefits for burns he received when cleaning a pressure cooker. The court reasoned--if that's the word--that the worker abandoned his job, because he had been told not to use boiling water when cleaning the cooker, but went ahead and did so anyway.

This is a decision straight out of the days of robber barons and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, when workers were disposable commodities. It is a sign of just how reactionary, selfish and crabbed "conservative" Republicans have become; until this year, the GOP dominated Ohio politics, and thus the appointment of judges.

The idea that a worker who is doing a job "abandons" it by not obeying instructions would be laughable if the results were not so tragic. If the young man in this case had stormed out of the restaurant during his shift, been injured in a traffic accident and then claimed workers' compensation benefits, then we might say that they should be denied because he abandoned his job. In the real world--not the one inhabited by a majority of the Ohio Supreme Court--workers often disobey instructions because (a) the instructions are clearly wrong; (b) the instruction given is pro forma, when the message is clear that the method to use is exactly the one supposedly forbidden (think of instructions to truckers not to exceed the speed limit), or (c) the worker is dumb. None of those should keep an injured employee from getting worker's compensation.

The workers' compensation system resulted from a bargain in which employees are barred from suing employers or fellow employees, and precluded from going to court or getting a jury trial, in exchange for assured payments in a no-fault system. Workers' compensation payments, set by law, are typically much lower than what the worker would recover in a successful tort suit, and they are often delayed by bureaucracy. Lawyers' fees (if the employer does not agree that compensation benefits should be paid, the worker needs an attorney) are limited, with the result that lawyers can only afford to take such cases if they can turn them over quickly; cases often elude close examination or hard fighting. And now the court in Ohio wants to put a further barrier between injured workers and compensation.

Democrats have taken over in Ohio as a result of the 2006 elections. Let's hope they repeal this terrible decision by legislative action, and return the Buckeye State at least to the 20th Century, if not the 21st.

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