Workers Comp fix shifts burden off employers

House Bill 26 reverses Wilkes v. City of Greenville, passes House and Senate unanimously

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Workers construct the new public beer hall and garden next to Red Oak Brewery in Whitsett

RALEIGH — — A bipartisan piece of legislation that reverses a recent court case that the business community said has costly implications on workers compensation cases, is headed to the governor’s desk. House Bill 26 passed both the Senate and House with unanimous vote counts, as part of an avalanche of legislation that moved during the final days of session.

The bill aims to void the precedent set by the early June decision in Wilkes v. City of Greenville, a case which shifts the burden of proof in workers compensation cases on to the employer.

In the Wilkes case the employee was badly injured in a car crash on company time, sustaining injuries to his ribs, neck, legs, and entire left side of his body. He filled out what is known as a ‘Form 60′ for workers compensation. The Supreme Court case held that in filing out this form, Wilkes’ employer accepted liability for all health issues Wilkes endured thereafter — including his subsequent anxiety and depression, unless the employer could somehow prove they were not related to his initial injury.

Instead, HB-26 shifts the burden to prove the conditions are related back on the employee, who has access to their own medical records and referrals. Andy Ellen, president of the N.C. Retail Merchants Association who represents thousands of businesses statewide, said the Wilkes case puts employers in an untenable position: unable to limit their liability. He says that more workers comp cases would end up in court as employers attempt to challenge claims, hurting both employers and employees. Employers and insurers throughout North Carolina also say they would see drastic increases to their workers’ compensation costs. The State of North Carolina alone estimates that their costs would increase by $18.3 million in 2018, and soar to $24.2 million by 2020 – based on a minimum increase of 15 percent. Ellen says the legislation was agreed upon by stakeholders representing all industries of the business community and the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, which represents workers’ rights.

“Long-term, looking back, this might be the single most important thing we could do for the business community this session,” said Ellen after the House voted to pass the measure on Thursday.