Governor Rauner has been trying to turn workers’ compensation reform into a wedge issue. He claims that exorbitant workers’ compensation insurance premiums are driving businesses and jobs out of Illinois, stifling growth and eliminating jobs. However, he fails to mention that the majority of litigation is driven by insurance companies and defense firms. We are in the midst of litigating a case that illustrates the reality of the situation.
Our client is a dockworker at ABF Freight Systems. He had been loading and unloading their trucks for years when he suffered a ruptured biceps tendon in his right arm. He reported his accident and sought prompt medical attention. He was cleared for surgery but wanted a second opinion – an absolute right under the workers’ compensation act.
However, once ABF’s insurance company and their attorneys got involved, the case immediately stalled. First, the insurance company had a nurse attend our client’s doctor’s appointment and tell him that, if he exercised his right to a second opinion, his treatment would be delayed. Next, ABF Freight, through its defense firm, hired a doctor to perform an examination and conclude that our client had not suffered an injury. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission had already determined, in a written decision, that this doctor had no credibility. However, ABF Freight, and their defense firm, were not bothered by this in the least.
Eventually, ABF forced our client to wait one year for trial by demanding additional depositions – even though the witness they insisted upon testified favorably for our client and against ABF.
Finally, almost two years (!) after the accident, we received an arbitration decision concluding what was apparent from the beginning – our client is entitled to financial and medical benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act. As we write this, he has been without medical care and disability benefits for a year and a half and we are waiting to hear if the defense attorney will insist on a meaningless appeal – dragging the case out for another year.
Real disputes occur, and they should be heard and decided by impartial arbitrators. However, the problem arises when insurance companies and their defense firms purposefully delay simple proceedings in the hopes of scaring injured workers into accepting settlements. Our client was offered a pittance to resolve his claim before trial, even though it was clear that the evidence favored him. Now, as we wait for ABF Freight’s defense attorneys to appeal, we anticipate that, once they do so, they will again offer a pittance to settle. This tactic of attempting to starve injured workers into settlement is all too common.
So, the next time that you hear a politician or an insurance company lobbyist blame injured workers for problems with the Workers’ Compensation Commission, ask yourself who really benefits from the protracted litigation. It is not our client, who has waited two years for an operation with no medical care and no income. It is not us – the value of our fee actually decreases in cases like these. In contrast, the insurance company has now placed itself in a position where the operative repair may not be possible due to the delay, saving them medical costs, and ABF Freight’s defense firm has billed thousands of dollars on a case that never should have been litigated. So, who are the real winners and losers here? Who is incentivized to prolong litigation and keep the dockets full?