NC legislators side with employers, shift burden to injured workers

It didn’t take long for a broad coalition of organizations representing public and private employers to persuade state legislators to nullify the impact of a recent N.C. Supreme Court decision in favor of an injured worker.

The state House unanimously approved a bill Thursday that was crafted to counteract the high court’s recent decision in a case involving a City of Greenville landscaper/laborer who was severely injured when a vehicle ran a red light and struck the city-owned truck he was driving.

The House approval, which came without debate, follows on the heels of the Senate’s approval – also unanimous – on Wednesday evening. As a result, the bill is headed to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper.

The court’s decision in Wilkes v. City of Greenville was handed down on June 9. More than two dozen groups and companies – including the N.C. Chamber, the N.C. League of Municipalities, N.C. Association of County Commissioners, American Airlines and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina – urged legislators to change the law in light of the court’s ruling.

Andy Ellen, president of the N.C. Retail Merchants Association, one of the groups pushing legislators to act, said in an interview ahead of the House and Senate votes that he had never seen business and government officials so galvanized by a workers’ compensation issue.

“I can’t turn around without someone grabbing me saying: ‘How do I get involved? How can I help?’ ” he said.

Employers argued that the high court’s decision would significantly raise their workers’ comp costs. Attorneys who represent injured workers scoffed at that, saying that the ruling merely affirmed employees’ long-held legal rights and shouldn’t affect costs.

Workers’ comp attorneys such as Anita Hunt, a Durham lawyer who represented the injured Greenville worker, said earlier this week that she was opposed to efforts to counteract the court’s ruling.

“The big losers, if they change the law, are North Carolina employees,” she said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The Supreme Court found that once an employer admits that an employee is entitled to workers’ compensation for injuries suffered in a work-related accident, the employer can be on the hook for paying to treat medical issues that arise later unless it proves those ailments didn’t stem from the accident.

Employers said the court’s ruling would be bad for both them and workers because they would be more cautious about accepting a claim and would require additional medical exams.

The bill approved by legislators, however, shifts the burden of proof to injured workers to prove that a subsequent “injury or condition” stems from a work-related accident.

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii