EDMOND, Okla. (KFOR) — “My uniform was all ripped up from that day,” Sgt. Joseph Wells said.
Sgt. Wells is talking about the day he almost died.
“My motor wings, medal of valor, lifesaving award. That’s two, because I have two of them and my name badge,” he said.
All now covered in dirt and blood – a lifesaving hero.
“It’s kind of crazy holding it knowing it was on my uniform that day and not anymore,” Wells said.
Edmond Police Sgt. Joseph Wells was hit during a high speed chase in September 2022. His fight for survival has included a long and painful recovery. He is now suing the man who hit him, but even if Sgt. Wells wins in court, most of his money could end up going to the city he works for and his insurance company. They have every legal right to take two-thirds of any settlement to recoup benefits he has received, because that is the law in Oklahoma.
For the past 11 months, Joe has been defying odds – on maximum life support for 15 days. It was a miracle recovery that not even doctors thought was possible. Joe was plowed over during a high-speed chase and left for dead – one of many risks of the job. Joe was moving debris from the road when he was hit and was not part of the actual chase.
“You go to work to do your job protecting the city and serving the city and get hurt doing that job and then what?” he said.
This is where the physical, mental, and emotional battles meet another challenge – if you survive.
25-year-old Garrett Trammel was arrested and charged for almost killing Sgt. Wells. That is the criminal case. Joe has filed a separate civil case against Trammell, Trammell’s father, and their insurance provider.
But, “The city and the insurance company have a stake in what I might get civilly through that,” he said.
For years lawmakers tried to pass a bill to reduce the costs of workers’ comp insurance in the state of Oklahoma. It failed year after year until they got creative. They called it workers’ compensation reform.
“This had nothing to do with reform,” attorney and former state representative Richard Morrissette said.
But it passed in 2013 when then state representative Leslie Osborn was recruited to front the bill – a small business owner and a woman. Osborn is now Oklahoma labor commissioner.
“This bill had been run multiple years. My understanding even before I came into the house of representatives is that it was run by an attorney,” she said. “When T.W. Shannon was speaker, he asked me to chair the judiciary committee as a non-attorney but as a small business owner.”
And it worked. It was signed into law by Mary Fallin who was governor at the time and married to an attorney whose areas of practice include workers’ compensation.
“This was the State Chamber of Commerce. This was their prize pupil bill to wreck the judicial system in workers’ comp,” Morrissette said. “The well to do and well-heeled, insurance companies, and corporations were paying large amounts of workers’ comp insurance premiums. They blamed it on the workers comp attorneys that were making legal fees off of injured workers.”
Morrissette was one of the most vocal lawmakers who fought SB 1062.
“You create a boogey man, lawyers, point the finger at them and say this system needs to be reformed to save the state money,” he said.
Under the old law, injured Oklahomans would hire an attorney and take their case before a workers’ comp judge.
“Your lawyer, my lawyer, bring the evidence to court, and we have the judge determine,” Morrissette said.
Under the new law there are three workers’ comp commissioners appointed by the governor. Two are former Governor Mary Fallin appointees, and one was appointed by current governor, Kevin Stitt. We reached out to the commission. They are not allowed to discuss individual cases.
“This commission, they’re all political appointees,” Morrissette said. “Who are they going to answer to? The obvious answer is the people who put them there.”
Bob Burke has been representing injured workers for more than 40 years and says it is not the new system that needs to change but the law.
“The law given to us nine years ago is the worst ever for the injured worker,” Burke said. “It gave Oklahoma the lowest benefits in the nation.”
In particular there is a change to what is called subrogation, and it is modeled after Arkansas law that states an employer or carrier shall receive two-thirds of the recovery in a third party suit.
“Who wrote that?”
“We don’t know,” Burke said. “Although the wording of this probably is from Arkansas.”
“That would be like copying and pasting.”
“A third of the bill was copied and pasted,” Burke said.
Edmond Police Sgt. C.J. Nelson was killed in the line of duty nearly two months to the day before Joe’s accident. The city of Edmond opted out of taking any portion of the winning his family received in a civil suit. The difference though is Sgt. Nelson died. Workers’ comp had no claim. Burke believes it is unconstitutional for an employer to take any third party settlement when an employee dies. The issue is pending before the Oklahoma Supreme Court, but it is different if an injured employee, like Joe, survives.
“The employer gets all of its money back from a negligent third party,” Burke said “Our Supreme Court has said that that is constitutional. I disagree with that. If somebody is in a wheelchair you can’t ever get enough money to compensate them for what they have lost.”
Meanwhile, Joe’s case remains in limbo.
“I just sit here all day kind of thinking about what’s going on, what’s going to happen,” Joe said.
It is a day-by-day recovery riddled with uncertainty and guilt.
“It can be hard,” he said. “I sit here and wonder why I’m still here, and CJ’s not.”
The Workers’ Compensation Commission’s 2022 report compares the current commission and the previous system that handled cases before the new law went into effect. The report cites a 90 percent decrease in appeals and a 50 percent reduction in case filings. The workers’ comp act also implemented a mediation system. The majority of cases are now settled out of court.
“Rates have gone down over 60 percent for businesses across the state,” Osborn said.
The law came from large companies based in Oklahoma City who did not like paying benefits, because they didn’t have any insurance.”
Big business. And self-insured. The Workers’ Compensation Commission says that since the reform, businesses, schools, and municipalities have saved nearly 322 million dollars in workers’ compensation insurance premiums.
“We brought in the state chamber on this side, and we brought in professionals like Bob Burke,” Osborn said.
Burke said he was never consulted.
“So for clarification you were never consulted at all, had no part?”
“Right,” Burke said.
“I had written the workers’ comp laws for 30 years, but in 2013 in the last closing days of the session the legislature passed it and hardly anybody read this bill,” he said.
“What we hoped to do was find that middle ground,” Osborn said.
It is a middle ground that Morrissette says is uneven and claims the most prominent workers’ comp attorneys in the state were consultants and helped write the bill – and inside advantage.
“You can count the number of workers comp lawyers not on two hands but on one,” Morrissette said. “Because it is so difficult even as a lawyer.”
A playbook for a system some believe only a few know how to successfully navigate.
“Is it a perfect system? Absolutely not,” Osborn said. “But I do think it’s better. I just think there is continued work to do.”
“That commission is there to protect insurance companies,” Morrissette said. “It’s not there to protect injured workers.”
News 4 contacted the Edmond Police Department, and they referred us to the city attorney, Steve Murdock. Murdock said he does not recall any situation when the city received a portion of a city employee’s civil winnings. However, they have not stated what they will do in Sgt. Wells’ case.
Burke said only legislators can change the law, and he believes at the very least an exception should be made for injured first responders.