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New Law to Boost Coverage for State Workers Raises Ethical Questions

Local Matters


Published February 20, 2008 at 11:29 a.m.


When Sgt. Michael Johnson was struck and killed by a fleeing motorist on Interstate 91 in June 2003, the 39-year-old state trooper left a wife, two sons and a daughter behind. The driver who hit Johnson, 23-year-old Erik Dailey of Lebanon, New Hampshire, had liability insurance coverage that was limited to $25,000. Since Vermont self-insures its employees for injuries caused by uninsured or underinsured motorists, the most Johnson's family could hope to recover from the state was $250,000.

Now, a Vermont lawmaker has proposed increasing that sum considerably. Senator John Campbell (D-Windsor) has introduced a bill, S.349, that would raise the uninsured motorist coverage to $5 million for a state employee injured or killed on the job, and $10 million for two or more employees. The bill would affect roughly 9400 state workers and cost Vermont about $48,000 per year in additional premiums.

What the bill doesn't cover, however, is the potential conflict of interest of its legislative sponsor: Campbell is the attorney representing Michael Johnson's estate, which is currently involved in a federal lawsuit with the out-of-state insurance company that underwrote Vermont's umbrella liability policy. Campbell's wife, Kerrie, is arguing on behalf of the estate that Vermont's policy provided excess coverage of $1 million.

Campbell's bill raises an interesting ethical dilemma: Should lawmakers be allowed to propose legislation that, directly or otherwise, may benefit them personally?

Campbell's bill has the backing of the union that represents many government workers who operate state vehicles on a daily basis. Vermont State Employees Association President Annie Noonan says it would address a longstanding complaint by workers who've been injured on the job, particularly those who've had to sue the state in order to recoup lost wages and medical expenses. "Risk management is a complete nightmare for state employees to deal with, and has been for years," Noonan says. "The way they deal with claims by state employees is just shameful."

Moreover, Campbell's bill only increases coverage for state workers who are injured or killed on the job, not for regular citizens who are injured or killed by state workers. So, for example, if Average Joe Vermonter collided with a snowplow, the state's liability would still be capped at $250,000, unless the state employee was found to have been operating the plow negligently.

Campbell concedes it's legitimate to ask about his motives for S.349. However, he insists that the circumstances, as well as the state's insurance coverage at the time of Johnson's death, were "totally different from what's involved here." If the bill were signed into law, he explains, its provisions are not retroactive and would not take effect until the following calendar year. Currently, the bill has no effective date.

"To me, ethics are more important than anything else," Campbell adds. "I would not be involved if I thought for one second that this would monetarily benefit me or a client."

It's not uncommon for citizen-lawmakers to propose bills that address problems arising within their own professions or areas of expertise. For instance, House Ag Committee Chair Dave Zuckerman (P-Burlington) sponsored a bill to create a competitive grants program that expands the capacity of farmers' markets; Zuckerman is himself an organic farmer who sells produce at the Burlington Farmers' Market. Similarly, no one raised an eyebrow when Rep. Harry Chen (D-Mendon), an emergency physician, introduced a bill to protect the confidentiality of EMS workers who seek counseling for job-related stress.

But an attorney engaged in civil litigation earns his fee based on a percentage of what he recovers for his clients; if the ceiling on those recoveries goes up, so too do his earnings. That said, several Vermont lawyers and legal experts consulted for this story say that as long as Campbell's bill isn't made retroactive, it shouldn't raise any red flags.

"If I had thought that someone would have that impression, I probably would have had someone else introduce it," Campbell adds. "All I want is for state employees to be treated the same way as I'd treat my own family."