Gov. Greg Gianforte this month nominated Thomas “Lee” Bruner to the vacant judgeship on Montana’s Workers’ Compensation Court.
Bruner, who previously worked as a deputy clerk of the Montana Supreme Court under Republican Clerk Bowen Greenwood, was one of four applicants considered for the workers’ compensation judge position, which the Legislature created in 1975 to resolve disputes related to the Montana Workers’ Compensation Act, itself the subject of a major legislative overhaul in 1971.
“A Butte native, Lee Bruner is an accomplished, experienced attorney who will bring his commitment to the fair, consistent, and objective application of the law to the Montana Workers’ Compensation Court,” Gianforte, a Republican, said in a statement. “Given his experience and the overwhelming, positive public comment supporting Lee, I’m confident he will make an exceptional judge and serve the people of Montana well.”
Bruner, reached by phone Friday, expressed gratitude for Gianforte’s nod and said he already has briefings spread out on his desk. He took his oath of office on Thursday.
The workers’ compensation court system — designed to more amicably and cheaply resolve disputes between employees, employers and insurers — is an important legal venue that nonetheless flies under the radar, Bruner said.
“Unless you’re involved with the system, you probably don’t even know it’s out there,” Bruner told Montana Free Press. “I think it’s incredibly important. We run a business, we run a ranch, agriculture is statistically a very dangerous profession. We use workers’ compensation to manage our risk. I think it’s a critical part of business in Montana. It protects labor, and of course, the employer, on the other side, gets the protection as well.”
As an example of the kind of work the court does, take the 2021 case Bryer vs. Accident Fund General Insurance Co. An employee for American Welding and Gas, Inc., was knocked unconscious after the safety valve on a gas cylinder burst, sending him to the concrete floor and unleashing a flood of dangerous gas into a poorly ventilated room. He later went into a cardiopulmonary arrest, causing brain injury and coma.
His conservator and guardian contended that his injuries justified compensation. The employer and its insurer initially denied the claim, arguing that the employee couldn’t prove he went unconscious as a result of the gas cylinder burst, and that it may have burst because he had an unrelated medical incident and could not monitor gas levels. He appealed, and the Workers’ Compensation Court found the insurer did not complete an adequate investigation, that the company had crafted a version of events based on a desired — and false — conclusion, and that the employee’s injuries were compensable.
Bruner replaces Judge David Sandler, who reached the end of his six-year term this year and elected not to re-apply for the position. Previous Workers’ Compensation Court judges include prominent jurists like current Montana Supreme Court Justice Jeremiah Shea.
The three other applicants were Steven Fletcher, a workers’ compensation attorney with his own firm; Morgan Weber, a private-practice attorney in Helena; and Kelly Wills, who discontinued practicing at his own firm earlier this year.
All of those three applicants listed more direct involvement with workers’ compensation law than Bruner, whose practice, prior to clerking for the Supreme Court, has focused on a range of areas including medical malpractice, employment law, environmental law and tort law. But he wrote in his application that his medical negligence cases — “classic liability and damages matters” — largely resemble workers’ compensation claims and have thus prepared him for the job.
Bruner was also previously an administrative law judge under Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Matt Rosendale from 2017 to 2019, was the president of the Montana Defense Trial Lawyers Association, and unsuccessfully ran for attorney general as a Republican in 2008.
He described himself to MTFP as a textualist. Responding to a question in the application on Bruner’s philosophy regarding the proper interpretation and application of statutes and the Constitution, Bruner quoted conservative former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a prominent advocate of textural originalism.
Bruner is the first workers’ compensation court judge appointed under the new judicial vacancy procedure the Legislature created in the 2021 session. The new system replaces the Judicial Nominating Commission and gives Gianforte direct appointment power to fill vacancies to district and speciality courts. Bruner is the eighth judge Gianforte has appointed.
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