This essay takes issue with the Supreme Court of Oklahoma’s recent decision (in Torres v. Seaboard Foods, LLC.) 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, a process that was often prohibitively expensive, onerous, and time-consuming for hardworking citizens who found themselves unable to earn a paycheck just 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.”
The essay cites primary and secondary sources to demonstrate that 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” (emphasis added). 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 Supreme Court of Oklahoma 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.