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West Virginia workers' comp bill would restrict civil claims

A bill introduced in the West Virginia House of Delegates could restrict legal paths for victims of workplace accidents. A group of 10 Republican lawmakers has proposed limitations on lawsuits against employers whose workers are harmed due to safety rule violations. The proposal would restrict liability lawsuits by plaintiffs receiving workers' compensation.

Workers' compensation insurance, paid by employers, provides benefits for victims of job-related illnesses and accidents, including employees with coal mining injuries. However, compensation for medical bills, disability and wage losses often isn't enough to cover the financial blows injured workers suffer, like the loss of full paychecks and pension benefits.

Opponents of HB 2011, including the trial lawyers in the West Virginia Association for Justice, say the bill threatens to grant legal immunity to careless or reckless employers. The House Judiciary Committee recently heard arguments from both sides at a public hearing, with testimony from families affected by the 2010 coal mining accident at Upper Big Branch, which claimed 29 workers' lives.

The WVAJ and coal mining families are worried employers won't be held accountable for unsafe work sites. Without liability claims for injuries and deaths, coal miners' families said financial survival would be difficult, if not impossible.

The West Virginia Coal Association and the West Virginia Business and Industry Council back the legislation. Industry representatives said a change in the law would curb "deliberate intent" civil suits.

WVAJ attorneys argued passage of the measure could allow evidence of safety violations to remain hidden. Lawyers said federal inspectors from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and Mine Safety and Health Administration don't have the manpower or the legal authority to get to the heart of mine safety issues. Lawsuits do.

Coal mining accident attorneys assist victims with claims for workers' compensation and other benefits. When appropriate, lawyers also seek sources of compensation and evidence of fault outside the benefits' system.

Source: The Charleston Gazette, "Bill would make it more difficult for workers to sue over injuries" Paul J. Nyden, Jan. 21, 2015

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