Senate passes workers' comp bill by vote of 59-0

--April 14, 2011 

A bill that would prevent payment of workers' compensation benefits to any person injured while engaging in a forcible felony, aggravated DUI or reckless homicide passed the Senate on Wednesday by a vote of 59-0.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, stemmed from the death in 2007 of teenage sisters Kelli and Jessica Uhl, of Collinsville.

They died in a head-on crash on Interstate 64 when then Illinois State Trooper Matt Mitchell lost control of his squad car while driving 126 mph and using his cellphone to talk to his girlfriend. Mitchell's police cruiser crossed the median and struck the Uhl vehicle, killing the sisters instantly and injuring a man and a pregnant woman in another vehicle.

Mitchell, who pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and received probation, filed a workers' compensation claim for injuries he received in the crash. He has left the State Police and had his probation moved to New Jersey, where he now resides.

In March, the Uhl sisters' mother, Kimberly Schlau, testified before a Senate committee to push for passage of a law that would prevent cases where criminal conduct still allowed benefits to be paid.

"We wanted to establish a policy that someone who engages in wanton, reckless and criminal activity is not eligible for workers' comp," Haine said. "This is a statement from the Senate of Illinois, that we are stating to the citizens and the family of the victims, that we recognize that this conduct by our employee was disgraceful and reprehensible. We wanted to say something about this. This should never have occurred."

Senate Bill 1147 now goes to the House, where it is expected to receive widespread support. After that, it would become law if signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, who is pushing for reform of the state workers' compensation system following News-Democrat articles that reported nearly $10 million was paid in claims to employees at the Menard Correctional Center, mostly to guards for repetitive trauma for locking and unlocking cell doors.

Haine said the Senate's bill, which if signed by Quinn, would not be retroactive and would not apply to Mitchell's efforts to receive a workers' compensation settlement. He said the bill would make it easier to identify cases that would not qualify for settlements.

Workers' compensation arbitrator Jennifer Teague, who tried to keep a hearing in the Mitchell case secret from the media, denied Mitchell's claim. She has been placed on paid leave while the state investigates the matter.

His claim is now before the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission board of commissioners, which oversees decisions by arbitrators. Haine said staffers for the Senate have told him that several previous cases involving criminal conduct have resulted in denial of a claim, although the current law does not prevent such claims, even in cases where an employee's conduct was "willful and wanton."

Meanwhile, Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, said Wednesday the Senate is poised to vote on an overall reform bill that would replace a pivotal portion of the state's current workers' compensation act. Under current law, a claimant has only to prove that an on-the-job injury or condition could potentially contribute to a disability or medical condition.

The new proposal, sponsored by McCarter and others, would require that a claimant prove that something in the workplace was "more than 50 percent responsible" for the injury. The existing law allowed the warden of the Menard Correctional Center to receive a settlement of $75,678 in June for carpal tunnel syndrome he claimed occurred during his previous employment as a police officer.

"If we pass this plan in the Senate," McCarter said, "sending it onto the House for approval and the governor signs it, we'll send a clear message that Illinois is open for business again."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 239-2625.