This essay takes issue with the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s recent decision in Torres v. Seaboard Foods to declare some workers’ compensation (WC) laws unconstitutional.
The problem with the opinions of Justices Edmonson, Combs and Colbert isn’t simply that they reached the wrong conclusion — but that they reached it for the wrong reasons.
To justify their decision, all three justices went out of their way to invoke the grand bargain, a historic compromise between employers and employees that guarantees medical and wage replacement benefits to injured workers. Before the grand bargain was struck in 1917, most U.S. employees injured on the job had to sue their employers for damages. The process was often prohibitively expensive, onerous and time-consuming for hardworking citizens who found themselves unable to earn a paycheck — when they needed funds to cover medical bills and other expenses during their convalescence.
The grand bargain is worth championing because it put an end to this intolerable state of affairs, thanks, in part, to luminaries such as Crystal Eastman, who thought an injured worker shouldn’t have to spend “nearly half of (his settlement) to pay the cost of fighting for it.”
See also: Taking a New Look at the ‘Grand Bargain’
Eastman’s emphasis on avoiding long, costly court battles was typical of the thinking that guided the U.S. into embracing the grand bargain.
It is therefore disappointing to see Justice Colbert argue that he is “forced to insure that claimants and employers in the (WC) system have their day in court.” Colbert’s rationale is contrary to grand bargain principles.
The only thing forcing Colbert to such a conclusion is his decision to put the interests of injury lawyers ahead of the interests of injured workers and of the employers who provide the benefits those workers deserve.
If the Oklahoma Supreme Court is as committed to preserving grand bargain principles as Justice Colbert claims, it doesn’t need to do anything revolutionary. It only needs to rule in the same way that it did in 1917, when it initially recognized the state legislature’s ability to pass special legislation concerning WC in the interest of the general public.
This article is the summary of a much longer essay on the topic, which draws on numerous primary and secondary sources and which you can find here.