Sojourner makes plea for worker’s comp Bill inspired by Natchez man’s story

Published 7:18 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Tonight, state Sen. Melanie Sojourner, R-Natchez, will make a final plea to a judiciary committee regarding SB 2863, inspired by a Natchez man’s story, that would address an issue with the Mississippi worker’s compensation law.

The bill, if it were to pass, would allow injured workers or the surviving family members of those killed at work to sue the employer only if they, “can demonstrate that the employee’s injury or death on the job was caused by the employer’s gross negligence where injury was substantially certain to occur.”

However, Sojourner said with an 8 p.m. deadline, it sounds as though the bill may not come to pass.

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“I first authored it last year,” she said. “I spoke with the chairman both last year and this year and unfortunately, it sounds like it is not going to come out of committee.”

Sojourner said the Bill is named for Wells Middleton, who lost both hands in an industry accident on Aug. 6, 2020, in Natchez. Inspired by his “heartbreaking story” Sojourner said she authored and presented the bill in 2022 and again in 2023.

Middleton, 33, can no longer hold his wife or his son Conrad as he used to and missed the birth of his youngest son, Levi, after the accident.

“Christmas is always a hard one, not being able to assemble my kids’ toys and just having to watch. Not being able to throw the baseball to my son. Not being able to hold their hands. My youngest son will never know what that’s like and my oldest son will more than likely forget,” Middleton said.

The company he worked for Great River Industries, now Enerfab, cut corners to make a profit, Middleton said.

COVID-19 pandemic hardship caused company layoffs and he was asked to work alone on a computerized welding machine that he said should have been operated by at least two people.

The machine had an overhead crane that bends and shapes metal pieces. Both of Middleton’s hands were caught in the machine and crushed with no way for him to turn it off.

“The machine had safety features missing,” he said, describing a spring-loaded shutoff lever duct-taped to allow the machine to run continuously. He said a safety wire was missing that Middleton could have used to shut the machine off himself. “Had that been there, I could’ve lost a finger. Because it wasn’t, I just had to scream as loud as I could until my supervisor came over and ripped the duct tape off to pull the lever.”

Sojourner said she has known Middleton since he was a child and has spent hours with him on the phone discussing exactly what happened the day of the accident. Additionally, Sojourner said she spent months talking to his former coworkers and looked into the machines that were used and their user manuals. She said she is confident that Middleton’s employer is responsible for the accident and that the job he was asked to perform is what caused his injury.

“The company took action and they altered the machine in a way that it was almost certain that someone operating that machine would get hurt,” she said.

As a result, Middleton said both he and his family have suffered a great deal of hardship that he hopes no one else will have to deal with.

“Your companies tell you about workman’s comp like it’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s horrible. Anyone who’s ever dealt with it would tell you. I’m having people who have their hands tell me what I need. You have to fight tooth and nail with them. … I used my hands for a living and I haven’t been able to work since.

“Their profit was put before my safety and unfortunately, that happens to a lot of hard workers in Mississippi. I don’t want anybody or their family to go through what I have had to go through. So much has been taken away from my life and my kids’ lives, all for a profit.”

After multiple surgeries and a full amputation of both his hands, Middleton still has to go back and forth to Houston to Arm Dynamics to learn how to use the prosthetics and be fitted for new ones as his body changes, something he will have to go through for the rest of his life, he said.

“Mississippi’s rigid tort laws basically cap what someone can claim in a lawsuit,” Sojourner said. “If any employee is hurt on the job and the responsible party for causing the injury is the employer … if that employee is hurt or killed, the maximum compensation that the family can receive is $1 million, no matter how egregious or horrible the injury was.”

Middleton said because of Mississippi’s laws, the employer can’t be sued. There are not health benefits to cover catastrophic injuries and disability is right at $1,000 a month. Meanwhile, his wife, Lacey, works as his full-time caregiver.

“Wells’ medical bills are tremendous,” Sojourner said. “He’s constantly back and forth to Houston and doctors. He’s been to multiple surgeries and trying to get prosthetics. In addition to that, you also have a young man who was making a living with his hands. … Not only do you have the medical cost, but also the loss of wages he would have earned … and the emotional aspect of this. He can’t hug his wife and you can’t put a dollar amount on that. … There is no way a million dollars is going to remotely cover it.”

At the same time, Sojourner said she understands there are a lot of “frivolous lawsuits” costing companies tens of millions of dollars in damages.

“We need to have a business-friendly environment. I’ve supported dozens if not hundreds of bills that protect that,” she said. “All this bill does is barely crack the door open to give people like Wells a fighting chance in court. … This bill is the exact language that Texas has in law. …

“If Texas is so business-friendly, there is absolutely no reason that Mississippi can’t pass it.”

Sojourner said if the bill dies, “Mississippi turned its back on Wells,” and not just him but all Mississippi workers.

“He represents the blue-collar hard-working men and women in our state right now,” she said. “They’re making Mississippi work. Without these young people, companies aren’t going to come here. … The Bill could pass today and it’s not going to benefit Wells. He’s worried about the next person that gets hurt. There are so many great companies and good employers trying to make it, but what about the one that tried to cut a corner to save money? What if they took that chance and it cost a man his arms? That’s what happened in Natchez.”

Middleton said he hopes lawmakers would have a change of heart and consider the bill.

“I know sometimes you have to put a face to it,” he said. “I hope they look at my case and understand that it’s not right. It’s not like anyone can sue their employer for a slip and fall. All it does is hold businesses accountable for putting a dollar on people’s lives.”