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Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, introduced an amendment that declares post-traumatic stress disorder to be presumptively an occupational condition for first responders. This photo shows Zerwas at a March 22 House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee hearing. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, introduced an amendment that declares post-traumatic stress disorder to be presumptively an occupational condition for first responders. This photo shows Zerwas at a March 22 House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee hearing. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: 1st responders’ PTSD; actions for damages; déjà vu

First responders’ PTSD: After a gripping debate, the Minnesota House voted May 3 to add to its mega-omnibus supplemental finance bill a measure that declares post-traumatic stress disorder to be presumptively an occupational condition for first responders.

The amendment introduced by Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, was the same as one introduced during a public safety omnibus bill debate one day earlier. That attempt by Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, was ruled non-germane.

Zerwas said cops, firefighters, prison guards, state troopers and paramedics all witness horrific incidents and experience emotional trauma on the job. Yet when they file workers’ compensation claims citing PTSD, he said, often they get stonewalled by city and county officials and their legal counsel.

“Time and time again they say, ‘No, prove it,’” Zerwas said. “‘Prove that your PTSD is related to your work.’”

Zerwas said a similar measure to make PTSD presumptively occupational has been before the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council for more than a year. The council has not acted on it, he said.

That evenly split panel includes six organized-labor representatives and six Minnesota business community leaders. Ten of its members are chosen by the governor and the four House and Senate caucus leaders.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, offered an amendment to the Zerwas amendment. “This gets rid of the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council,” Mahoney said. “They aren’t doing their job.”

Mahoney’s idea was taken seriously, with House members from both parties expressing support—though others like House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, were opposed. Eventually Mahoney withdrew his amendment and the Zerwas language passed, 124-0.

Brian Rice, an attorney who lobbies the Capitol on the issue, said PTSD should concern any lawyer who represents a first responder in a workers’ compensation claim.

“It’s mental impairment, it’s what these guys are going through in terms of higher use of drugs and alcohol,” Rice said. “If you’re representing these guys in cases and they don’t get the treatment they need, they wash out.”

At a May 4 press conference, Gov. Mark Dayton said he supports the move. “I think there should be a firmer response,” Dayton said. “I think [PTSD] should be recognized for what it is—which is a debilitating disability.”

He said the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council was formed decades ago as an evenly balanced body, theoretically for internal checks and balances. “There’s a lot of check,” he said. “There’s not so much balance anymore.”

Dayton wouldn’t say, without seeking input from Labor and Industry Commissioner Ken Peterson, whether he’d support abolishing the council. But he said the next governor and Legislature ought to examine its continued viability.

“I think it is a committee whose usefulness needs to be reexamined,” Dayton said.

 

Actions for damages: An unopposed Minnesota State Bar Association bill that extends the statute of limitations on actions for damages related to construction projects has cleared its last legislative hurdle. It now awaits the governor’s signature.

House File 2743 passed the House 126-0 on April 25. After that bill’s language was deposited into its Senate companion, HF 2743 was presented on the Senator floor by Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. It passed there 66-0 on May 2. Dayton signed it Tuesday.

The new law will allow parties who agree that there is a problem at a construction site, but who expect the problem to be rectified before the project is done, to avoid filing litigation simply to protect their interests.

The legislation stemmed from the case, 328 Barry Avenue v. Nolan Properties Group. There the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a two-year civil statute of limitations began to run as soon as a defect — incorrectly installed windows — was discovered near the beginning of a big construction project.

Because it was a three-year project and the fix was not done until it the final stage, the high court ruled that litigants waited too long to file, said Scott Andresen, a member of the bar’s construction law section.

The new law would delay triggering the statute of limitations until a project is substantially complete, or has been either abandoned or terminated.

“It does not affect the statute of limitations for bodily injury or wrongful death claims associated with a construction project,” Newman said. “This bill will simply reduce unnecessary litigation, without eliminating anyone’s right to recovery.”

 

Déjà vu: If you thought you’d heard the last of the freeway protest bill debate after it was folded into the House mega-bus supplemental finance bill, you were wrong.

On Tuesday, House File 390 was reintroduced as a stand-alone bill for yet another House floor debate. The bill increases criminal penalties for people who obstruct trunk highways, airports or transit traffic—activities most often associated with political protests.

On Monday, Zerwas said he thought it was important to give the bill a hearing separate from the omnibus legislation. “I think Minnesotans deserve to know where legislators and the governor are on this issue, individually,” he said.

Dayton has signaled he might support legislation keeping trespassers off freeways, but only if it doesn’t quell free speech. He said Tuesday he hasn’t reviewed Zerwas’ standalone bill and wasn’t prepared to say if he would support it. But he did express an opinion.

“Talk about a non-problem,” he said, noting that he hasn’t seen a protest for almost a year.

“So what are doing?” Dayton continued. “They’re dealing with issues that are playing to their base and playing to their politics and playing to their re-elections, rather than serving the needs of the people of Minnesota.”

Tuesday’s floor debate was a replay of arguments over various iterations of the same legislation stretching back well over a year.

Democrats opposed it on grounds that it stifles free speech and seeks to intimidate protesters—especially protesters of color—to stay home. Republicans argued that it is a public safety measure needed to ensure that ambulances, first responders and motorists have unfettered access to critical infrastructure.

The end result was the same, too. The bill passed Tuesday in a 71-55 House vote. Its companion, Senate File 676, has also cleared committee stops and awaits its final vote in the upper chamber.

Meanwhile, Zerwas’ bill language remains embedded in the House mega-omnibus finance bill, which was being heard with its Senate counterpart in conference committee hearings beginning Tuesday afternoon.

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