The Supreme Court today made it easier for insurance companies to sue in federal court to challenge compensation awards to injured workers.
The justices, by an 8-1 vote, allowed an Illinois insurance company to go to federal court to try to kill a worker compensation award to a Texas man.
The court said insurers may sue in federal court even though the employer they insure is based in the same state as the injured worker--as long as the insurance company is from another state.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the court, said federal law bars such federal lawsuits when insurance companies are sued. But the law clearly does not apply when the insurance companies are doing the suing, Marshall said.
The distinction may seem incongruous, Marshall said. But, he added, "we cannot doubt that Congress meant what it said."
The case stems from a compensation claim awarded Larry W. Brewer for an injury he suffered on April 4, 1986, while working for Whitmire Line Clearance Inc. in Lamar County, Tex.
Legal papers submitted to the high court did not describe Brewer's job, his injuries or the size of the compensation award.
Northbrook National Insurance Co., based in Illinois, insures Whitmire for worker compensation claims. The insurance firm went to federal court in 1987 to challenge the award to Brewer made by the Texas Industrial Accident Board.
A federal judge threw out the insurer's suit and the ruling was upheld by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In another case today, the court refused to ease the technical requirements facing people who sue to protect the environment.
The justices ruled 7 to 2 against an Oregon farming couple, saying the victory it took Olaf and Mary Hallstrom three years and $95,000 to win against their county never should have been ruled on by a federal court.
But the Hallstroms are free to start all over again, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.
The Hallstroms' trial victory was overturned by a federal appeals court because their lawyer had failed to notify federal and state environmental officials, as required by the law they sued under, before filing the 1982 suit.
The suit contended that a Tillamook County, Ore., landfill next to what is left of the Hallstroms' 200-acre dairy farm caused or contributed to the pollution of their water supply.
Despite the failure to notify government officials 60 days before the suit was filed, a federal judge allowed the suit to proceed--and in 1985 ordered the county to remedy violations of federal environmental law within two years.
The judge turned down the Hallstroms' request for $95,000 in lawyer fees, and the couple appealed.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987 ruled that the Hallstroms' suit should have been dismissed before any trial because of the failure to notify.
That ruling was upheld today.
Justices Marshall and William J. Brennan dissented, stating in an opinion by Marshall that the decision "ill serves both judicial economy and Congress' purposes" in passing the environmental protection law.