Matt Mitchell is a former Illinois state trooper. On November 23, 2007, he was on duty and called to the scene of an accident. About ten minutes later, he was called again and told there was no longer an emergency and to stand down/slow down as help had already arrived. For reasons we hope he regrets for the rest of his life, he didn’t slow down. While bombing along Interstate 64 at over 120 MPH, he also was chatting with his girlfriend and sending text messages. The road was somewhat clogged with Thanksgiving holiday travelers.
The distracted trooper crossed over the median at high speed and hit a car head on. Two young sisters, Kelli and Jessica Uhl, were killed instantly. Two other occupants of the car were seriously injured. Trooper Mitchell suffered severe leg injuries including subsequent surgeries.
Mitchell was given an amazing break despite his unconscionable decisions--he pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and reckless driving and was sentenced to 30 months’ probation. He got no jail time despite killing the two young girls. Former trooper Mitchell did lose his job; he resigned his position with the Illinois State Police and later moved to New Jersey.
Former Trooper Mitchell then filed a claim for Illinois workers comp benefits. When your editor first heard of this story, we were stunned to learn three claimant lawyers were contacted and all of them opined WC benefits were likely to be awarded. These lawyers pointed to the stipulation during a civil suit filed by the parents of the Uhl sisters, the Illinois attorney general agreed, despite the unquestioned criminal negligence, Mitchell was acting in his capacity as a state trooper when the accident occurred. Here is what we wrote about it in 2010:
We are even more shocked to read the discouraging article in the Belleville News-Democrat© that interviewed and quoted three Petitioner-Plaintiff attorneys who all confirmed their view that criminally reckless behavior killing two children and severely injuring two more wouldn’t bar workers’ compensation benefits. The article contains a picture of one of the beautiful girls tragically killed. To the extent these Petitioner-Plaintiff attorneys commented, analyzed and effectively “decided” their skewed view on the issue of compensability of pending litigation, we completely disagree and consider their opinions to be misguided and embarrassing to all Illinois lawyers, hearing officers and judges/justices. We feel claimants who admit they committed crimes and recklessly endangered or killed innocent men, women and children should not be rewarded and receive Illinois’ generous WC benefits. We don’t consider it to be difficult for our Commission and reviewing courts to implement the concept—they just have to have the drive and will to do so.
Your editor feels the opinions of those lawyers and stipulation by AG Madigan’s office will always remain one of the dumbest and most infuriating things I have ever read in my entire legal career. There is no question whatsoever former Trooper Mitchell was “in the course of” his employment for our state. He was in a state uniform and using state equipment.
There is similarly no possibility, none, that he remained “in the scope of” his tasks as a state trooper. This state does not pay our sworn peace officers to drive at wildly high speeds for no reason. We also hopefully do not train or instruct our state troopers to text and talk to girlfriends when joyriding while on duty and endanger the lives of innocent men, women and children. Without meaning to minimize the devastating loss of the parents of the Uhl children, I always think of how this tragedy could have been similar to the recent shootings in Colorado if former Trooper Mitchell had struck a school bus full of children or lost control and blindly ran his patrol car into a busy hospital or church/synagogue.
Please note there is a stupid legal theory by which this craziness might have been arguably compensable—if one were to find Mitchell a “traveling employee” global WC coverage might attach to all his actions, whether negligent, reckless or intentional. This is another reason we feel the impossible-to-contemplate concept of “traveling employee” that our legislature has never defined has to be reined in completely until it makes some sort of common sense. Whatever the heck “traveling” might be defined as cannot equate with global coverage of all actions.
Please also note Illinois taxpayers faced an interesting “double jeopardy” from these facts. We, as taxpayers, were on the hook for the deaths of the Uhl sisters and the injuries to other passengers—the family of the Uhl girls and passengers received $8.7M from this trooper’s failures. We have a client who lost a beautiful daughter around the same time to a hit-and-run driver and we assure our readers no mother in this situation wants a dime—they would trade all that money an instant to get their loving child back. Heaped on top of that money in the “People’s Republic of Illinois,” if this hubbub hadn’t followed, Mr. Mitchell almost certainly would have received 30%, 40% or as much as 75% loss of use of the “person as a whole” for the blurring and extra-legislative concept of “loss of trade.” This is another troubling administrative WC concept our legislature has never defined; we feel someone has to get their arms around what the heck that might actually be in our state—there is no defined legislative or other standard to give someone 5% BAW versus 500% BAW for “loss of trade.” The only limiting factor is the imaginations of our hearing officers.
In defending claims for municipalities and other government bodies, we assure our readers when an Illinois police officer or a firefighter suffers injuries that preclude them from working in their former official positions, they get pension benefits that may cut off their right to Illinois’ two highest benefits—wage loss differential and “odd lot” total and permanent disability. To insure no injury to a police officer or firefighter comes without a wild cost to taxpayers, someone in the collective genius of ITLA and the claimant bar cooked up the “loss of trade” concept and everyone continues to struggle with what is “fair” despite the fact the claimant gets their taxpayer-supported pension for life with personal health care insurance paid for and can still work in other jobs without any setoff.
Other interesting aspects of the Mitchell claim include:
· Former Arbitrator Teague sparked a federal investigation and brouhaha when someone reported she was trying to set the initial hearing on the Mitchell claim on a quiet day to avoid the press and possibly award him benefits; she later set it for a proper hearing and zeroed the claim. She also got into other issues with ex parte communications and trying to advance her own WC settlement reportedly outside the silly delaying rules the State uses for its WC settlements. She and other Arbitrators also reportedly got “face value” tix to concerts and ballgames to later supposedly reimburse the prominent claimant attorney who gave them to her. She has since resigned, changed her name and moved on to pursuits outside WC litigation. We still wonder when/if anyone is going to report or sanction the claimant attorney who admittedly was giving things of value to hearing officers he was appearing in front of.
· The Illinois legislature enacted HB 1147 that made this claim noncompensable—our law now says an injured worker can’t get benefits when injured during a forcible felony like this one. We are pretty sure that new law made this ruling arguably unnecessary.
Finally, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, including all nine of our Commissioners and the Chairman participated in the en banc oral argument and ruling that ended IWCC claim number 10 WC 35184 titled Matthew Mitchell v. Illinois State Police. On July 6, 2012, they affirmed the ruling of the Arbitrator which denied all benefits. We assure our readers such a ruling, by Illinois law, is final and unappealable.
While we feel their ruling was mostly a public relations effort, sometimes good public relations is a solid idea. We salute our administrators for getting together as a team to let the entire Illinois WC community and the world know they would not sign off on this preposterous claim by this admitted felon. We hope their message goes out to future claimants, if you do something dangerous and recklessly injure innocent people, don’t come to them for the decent benefits they award to other injured workers. And while none of this will assuage the grief, pain and sadness of the parents of the beautiful Uhl daughters, we are happy this chapter in Illinois workers’ compensation history is now forever closed.
Pictures of Kelli and Jessica Uhl are posted on the web at:
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