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Published: Monday, 5/5/2008

Ruling may spur reopening of thousands of BWC cases


COLUMBUS - The state insurance fund for injured workers is trying to figure out the impact of a court ruling that could allow hundreds of thousands of previously settled injured workers' claims to be reopened.

Late last month, the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation issued an internal order prohibiting the destruction of any records related to the settling of a claim.

The April 29 memo was the first such order under a new BWC records policy enacted earlier this year. The order followed an April 16 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court that sided with an injured worker with a low IQ and limited reading skills.

The man, without being represented by a lawyer, was given $2,000 in 1997 to settle his claim for breaking his leg during a fall at a factory job in Galion, Ohio.

The workers' comp bureau downplayed the importance of the order freezing the destruction of settlement records. That development is not as relevant as the potential effect of the ruling on claims, said agency spokesman Keary McCarthy.

The agency settled 255,266 claims between 1997 and 2007.

"The number of cases that have been settled and the time span we're talking about here is fairly significant," he said.

Mr. McCarthy said there is no way to say how many cases would be affected by the top court's decision. The bureau will tally the cost of reopened claims on a case-by-case basis.

The Supreme Court's decision rejected the 1997 settlement between the workers' comp bureau and injured worker Robert Wise.

With some help from his father, Mr. Wise signed the settlement agreement on June 2, 1997. Mr. Wise has an IQ of 72, reads at a fourth-grade level, and is on the borderline of being mentally retarded, according to the April 16 court decision.

Five years later, Mr. Wise, now represented by a lawyer, tried to reopen the case, beginning a process that led to last month's court decision.

Mr. Wise lost his initial case before the state Industrial Commission, which hears appeals of workers' comp cases.

But a dissenting commissioner said the agreement wasn't valid because Mr. Wise never filled out a portion of the settlement form explaining why the settlement was needed.

Mr. Wise signed away his rights to future claims despite having already received $14,000 in medical treatment and $3,500 in compensation, "and despite the fact that the medical evidence shows that the claimant will likely suffer lifelong medical problems due to the serious injuries he sustained," the commissioner said, according to the Ohio Supreme Court ruling.

Mr. Wise's attorney, Adam Leonatti, said there are times when settling a claim is helpful. But there are also times, as with his client, when the state should determine when a settlement is in a worker's best interest.

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