Former Illinois State trooper Matt Mitchell is asking the state to compensate him for injuries from a crash in which he hit and killed two Collinsville sisters at triple-digit speeds.
Mitchell filed a worker's compensation case on Sept. 13 against the Illinois State Police. The case is pending.
"I wouldn't have filed the case if I thought it was frivolous or didn't have merit," said Kerri O'Sullivan, of the St. Louis firm of Brown and Crouppen, who represents Mitchell. "People get hurt at work all the time. It's our job as lawyers to help people with the difficult and complicated administrative process of worker's compensation."
Three worker's compensation lawyers say they believe Mitchell could receive compensation for the injuries he received in a Nov. 23, 2007, high-speed crash that resulted in the deaths of sisters Kelli and Jessica Uhl and injured Kelly and Christine Marler, of Fayetteville.
Thomas Q. Keefe, a Belleville lawyer who represented the Uhl girls' parents, Kimberly Schlau and Brian Uhl, in a civil lawsuit against the State Police, called Mitchell's claim "outrageous, but predictable."
"This man has no shame. He has no shame when he recanted his plea of guilty. He has no shame when he insisted on the stand that he was not responsible for this crash," Keefe said. "And he has no shame when he files for worker's compensation benefits."
Mitchell was driving 126 mph in busy day-after-Thanksgiving traffic on Interstate 64 near O'Fallon while sending and receiving e-mails and talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone moments before the crash. Mitchell was responding to an accident near Lebanon, but help already was at the scene of the accident where Mitchell was responding, authorities said.
Mitchell crossed over the median and hit the girls' car head-on. He sustained severe leg injuries.
After the accident, Mitchell was suspended with pay for nearly two years, drawing his $68,000 annual salary. He resigned from the Illinois State Police after pleading guilty to the criminal charges.
Mitchell pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and reckless driving in exchange for a sentence of 30 months probation.
Although Mitchell pleaded guilty to causing the accident, he can still receive a worker's compensation award, three lawyers agreed, saying that the only defense the state may have is whether or not Mitchell was doing his job as a state trooper when the accident occurred.
"If the accident occurred in the furtherance of the function of your employer, even if it was done in a negligent manner, it can be compensible under the Worker's Compensation Act," said Rod Thompson, a Belleville worker's compensation attorney.
"If an accident arises out of the course and scope of a person's employment, the employee is entitled to worker's compensation, despite their poor judgment," said Bruce R. Cook, a Belleville lawyer who handles worker's compensation cases.
Ian Elfenbaum, a Chicago lawyer, said an employee can be under the influence of drugs or alcohol when an injury occurs and still collect worker's comp benefits.
"You can be reckless and even negligent while working in the course and scope of your employment," said Elfenbaum. "Negligence or recklessness on the part of the employee is not a defense for the employer."
During the hearing on the civil suit filed by the Uhls' parents in the Illinois Court of Claims, the Illinois attorney general, who represented the state police in the suit, signed a stipulation agreeing that, despite his plea to the criminal charges, Mitchell was acting in his capacity as a state trooper when the accident occurred.
"That admission seals the deal," Thompson said. "That's all you need to get a compensible injury."
During the April Court of Claims hearing, Mitchell denied that he was responsible for the crash, despite pleading guilty three days earlier to reckless homicide and reckless driving charges.
Illinois worker's compensation was designed to allow injured workers easier access to health benefits and awards, Cook said, adding that "this claim is an insult to taxpayers and those two girls' families."
Under the Illinois Worker's Compensation Act, each injured body part is assigned a number of weeks of pay, and a hearing officer determines the percent of each injured body part.
For example, a hearing officer could determine that a person suffered a 50-percent loss of a leg. If the employee's gross salary was $60,000, he would receive 107.50 weeks at 60 percent of their weekly salary, or $74,423. But it could be an even greater award if the hearing officer finds Mitchell sustained a permanent total disability or finds the state must pay the difference between the amount that he earns now and the amount he earned as a state trooper.
That could be hundreds of thousands of dollars, Keefe said, that will be paid by the taxpayers. The benefits are non-taxable.
"But he still has to get out of bed every day and know that he caused the death of those two girls, and know that he didn't take responsibility for that," Keefe said. "He still has to look himself in the mirror and think about the fact his actions forever took two girls away from their parents, then he filed for worker's compensation benefits."