Wyoming Workers Comp: Frontier Justice?

February 2nd, 2009 by

Cody, Wyoming, was founded in part by “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the renowned slaughterer of buffalo. The town bills itself as the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. “A small western town with a big city attitude.” Sally Spooner, a long-time school teacher in the town, might question the “big city attitude.” Sally tripped and fell at school in December. She suffered serious injuries, resulting in the amputation of her right leg below the knee. A simple matter of workers comp, right? Think again, cowboy.
The Cody school district, along with 45 of 48 districts in the state, has opted out of comp coverage for most teachers. (Wyoming, a monopolistic state, does not require coverage for all employees.) Using a rather crude risk management assessment, the Cody district provides comp coverage only for “higher risk” teachers: those working in wood and machine shops, along with those in special ed and transportation. The rest – the “low risk” employees” – are factored out of the comp premiums. Nothing ever happens to ordinary classroom teachers, does it?
Superintendent Bryan Monteith admits to feeling terrible about Sally Spooner’s situation, but he has no regrets about the decision to eliminate comp coverage for most teachers. “We looked at it and said spending $175,000 a year for workers comp was not a good use for our money in terms of providing risk protection for the district. We decided using the money for salaries was a way to benefit the entire district.”
Monteith admits that Sally is a great teacher. They would like to do something for her, but given “fiduciary responsibilities” to the district and the potential for setting a bad precedent, they probably will let Sally fend for herself. Call it frontier justice.
Pretty Scenes, Ugly Scenario
I expect that Sally will pursue a little frontier justice of her own. Because she is not subject to the “exclusive remedy” of workers comp, Sally can sue the district for her lost wages and medical bills. In addition, she can access the open-ended benefits excluded by comp, including her (considerable) pain and suffering and possibly loss of consortium. Depending upon the school’s insurance arrangement for general liability, the ultimate cost of the settlement might wipe out the relatively modest comp savings.
Despite its cost, comp is generally a good deal for employers. For a relatively small premium, you are protected from the usually unforeseen, large losses like Sally Spooner’s. Tort liability is off the table. Even more important, comp provides an immediate safety net for the employee: there is no anxiety about the (extraordinary) medical expenses and lost wages in the days, weeks and months following an injury.
Given a choice, Sally Spooner probably would have preferred the prompt, if somewhat limited, payments of comp, as opposed to the potential down-the-road payoff of a lawsuit. Alas, she is the victim of frontier justice, and unlike Old Faithful in Yellowstone, it’s not a pretty sight.