Unfair: Decision bad for W.Va. business

For as much crowing as lawmakers have done over the past couple of years about their effort to make West Virginia more “open for business,” examples continue to pop up demonstrating the Mountain State can be a frightening place to do business.

Pioneer Pipe, based in Marietta, learned the hard way that the law — or, rather, the interpretation of the law — can be remarkably unfair to employers. Though a union heavy equipment operator worked only 40 hours of his 33-year career on a Pioneer project in Nitro, W.Va., the West Virginia Supreme Court upheld a workers’ compensation decision that will force the company to pay the costs associated with the worker’s hearing loss. All parties agree the hearing loss is the result of decades of exposure to occupational noise.

Justices had little choice in upholding the decision, as West Virginia code allows the Office of the Insurance Commissioner to arbitrarily pick the employer who will be held responsible in cases where allocating claims would be more fair.

Of course, the Insurance Commissioner complains that “the benefit of allocating claims would be outweighed by the problems which would be created by attempting to allocate claims in West Virginia’s privatized workers’ compensation (insurance) market.” In other words, it would be a little more complicated, and they would rather make a political statement than do right by the employers.

Justice Margaret Workman made very clear what she believes should happen next:

“The unfairness of this result is apparent and plainly should evoke consideration by the Legislature and/or Insurance Commissioner as to the wisdom of the statute and/or the commissioner’s misuse of the discretion granted him under the statue,” she wrote in her concurring opinion.

No employer should be afraid to take a job in the Mountain State or hire West Virginia workers because they could be left paying the cost of a career’s worth of other employers’ negligence. But that is exactly what West Virginia Insurance Commissioner Michael Riley has allowed to happen to Pioneer.

Lawmakers have made great strides over the past two sessions. They still have their work cut out for them.

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