8-22-11; Gov. Quinn signs “landmark” bill designed to prevent injured employees from receiving WC benefits for injuries stemming from illegal activities. Thank you Governor, but what took us so long?

We note the folks at the Belleville News-Democrat must be running out of ink for their presses with the recent wealth of press coverage bestowed on our IL WC system. While their most recent article publicizes a positive step in WC reform in Illinois, you don’t have to look too hard to see the fly in the ointment.

Reported last week by the Belleville-based publication, Governor Quinn has signed “landmark” legislation denying WC benefits to employees injured while committing select criminal activities leading to their injuries. Called Uhl’s Law after the two Uhl sisters killed in 2007 by State of Illinois Trooper Matt Mitchell while driving in excess of 120 mph and texting his girlfriend, the law prohibits workers convicted of reckless homicide, aggravated drunk driving or any “forcible felony” from receiving workers' compensation benefits for injuries sustained during the commission of that crime.

Proposed as HB 1147 and signed into law August 9, 2011, the exact language of the Act, amended as to Section 11, states as follows:

Notwithstanding any other defense, accidental injuries incurred while the employee is engaged in the active commission of and as a proximate result of the active commission of (a) a forcible felony, (b) aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol, other drug or drugs, or intoxicating compound or compounds, or any combination thereof, or (c) reckless homicide and for which the employee was convicted do not arise out of and in the course of employment if the commission of that forcible felony, aggravated driving under the influence, or reckless homicide caused an accident resulting in the death or severe injury of another person. If an employee is acquitted of a forcible felony, aggravated driving under the influence, or reckless homicide that caused an accident resulting in the death or severe injury of another person or if these charges are dismissed, there shall be no presumption that the employee is eligible for benefits under this Act. No employee shall be entitled to additional compensation under Sections 19(k) or 19(l) of this Act or attorney's fees under Section 16 of this Act when the employee has been charged with a forcible felony, aggravated driving under the influence, or reckless homicide that caused an accident resulting in the death or severe injury of another person and the employer terminates benefits or refuses to pay benefits to the employee until the termination of any pending criminal proceedings.

Reported by BN-D, Uhl's Law will prohibit the payment of workers' compensation claims if a felony conviction was obtained or guilty plea secured relative to a host of felonious activities outlined above. "It's simply common sense” said a proponent of the law “that taxpayers and employers should not have to pay an employee for an injury that arises out of a commission of a felony while on the job.”

"This is another tool to make sure that workers' compensation benefits go only to those who deserve them" Governor Quinn is quoted as saying in a written statement. Well, excuse us for noticing, Mr. Governor, but where has this “common sense” been for the past several decades?

We commend the Governor for effectuating what our hearing officers should have been determining all along; that an individual committing a criminal act removes him or herself from the course and scope of his/her employment while doing so. Therein lies the rub. Since this author started in this industry back in the 20th Century, our “intoxication defense” has been non-existent. We have awarded benefits to injured workers so intoxicated on alcohol that after driving themselves to work they lost limbs due to their intoxicated state, Clarence Saffold v Treasurer of the State of Illinois/Second Injury Fund, 05 I.W.C.C. 0528, 00 WC 15622, to workers so intoxicated on cocaine they fell to grave injury, Delbert Ray Dilley v. A-Lert Construction Services, 08 IL.W.C. 001654, 10 I.W.C.C. 0757, 2010 WL 3619609, (Ill.Indus.Com'n), August 10, 2010, and to workers so high on marijuana they fell to their death. Lakeside Architectural Metals v. Industrial Com'n 267 Ill.App.3d 1058, 642 N.E.2d 796 Ill.App. 1 Dist.,1994. Our system has awarded benefits to an injured worker so high on cocaine and alcohol that his ER treatment providers had to physically restrain him and catheter a urine sample just to determine what drugs he was on so they could administer proper treatment and medications. Foreman v. ABF Freight, 01 IL.W.C. 21897, 07 I.W.C.C. 0033, 2007 WL 726741, (Ill.W.C.C.), January 12, 2007.

We note the irony that once the State of Illinois faces such potential, the Act must be changed. Ironically, it appears the unfortunate tragedy of the Uhl sisters’ death, which was not the result of an intoxicated driver, may now result in the first set of teeth for our intoxication defense in decades following an apparent refusal of our Illinois Arbitrators to accept any such intoxication defense.

Again, we applaud the Governor for making this change, which hopefully will now force the hands of so many Illinois administrators and reviewing courts who for so long have been awarding benefits to individuals injured during the commission of criminal acts, including intoxication. We further applaud the Governor for not limiting the denial of benefits to crimes of intoxication but also violent crimes, reckless homicide and other felonious acts. But it raises a glaring question, particularly in light of the June 28, 2011 amendments: What took us so long?

This article was researched and written by attorney Joseph Needham who can be reached at jneedham@keefe-law.com. Please do not hesitate to post them on our blog.