Last September we blogged the sorry saga of Illinois trooper Matt Mitchell. He was heading toward an accident scene, siren blazing, texting his girlfriend and weaving in and out of traffic at a mind-boggling 126 miles per hour. (There was no urgency, as other troopers were already at the scene.) He crossed the median and slammed into a car coming the other way, killing teenage sisters Kelli and Jessica Uhl. Three days after pleading guilty to criminal charges, he filed for workers comp benefits. We expected that he would be able to collect; after all, comp is no fault and Mitchell was certainly in the "course and scope of employment."
We guessed wrong. An arbitrator found him ineligible, saying he neglected his duties as a trooper by taking "unjustifiable" risks. He was ineligible, in effect, because he knowingly and willfully put himself and others at risk. Mitchell is appealing the arbitrator's decision.
Carved in Stone
In an effort to make sure that the ugly circumstances of this incident are not repeated, the Illinois senate recently passed a bill (S 1147) denying any workers comp claim for injuries or death incurred while committing a crime, with crime defined as "a forcible felony, aggravated driving under the influence, or reckless homicide that resulted in the death or injury of another."
It's not unusual for a legislature to fashion ad hoc solutions to very specific situations. Prior to Matt Mitchell, there would have been little if any support for this particular bill. But once the possibility arose that Mitchell might actually be able to collect comp, the legislature was motivated to change the statute. Usually judges and arbitrators act with some discretion. In these egregious circumstances, the legislature wants to make its intent crystal clear.
The bill requires a conviction; on the other hand, acquittal or dismissal of the charges will not create a presumption that the claim is compensable.
As for Mitchell, the former trooper has left the state and now resides in New Jersey. Perhaps his dreams are troubled by images from that fateful day, when the dreams of two young sisters were obliterated by his negligence. He probably still experiences difficulty with his damaged legs, but one thing now appears fairly certain: there will be no indemnity checks in the mail to ease the pain of his work-related but non-compensable injuries.