Feeling Injured Workers’ Pain
Clients have long paraded through Lawrence Silver’s Koreatown law office in wheelchairs, on crutches, with canes and prosthetics.
But he’s the one feeling wounded these days.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. April 29, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Workers’ comp -- An article in Saturday’s Business section about the overhauled workers’ compensation system incorrectly reported that truck driver Paulino Figueroa had not received any compensation for injuries from an on-the-job accident. In fact, Figueroa has received some temporary compensation while he awaits a court hearing to determine whether he is eligible for permanent disability payments.
A workers’ compensation lawyer for 31 years, Silver is gloomy about the effect of the recently overhauled workers’ comp system on his practice -- and the lives of injured employees. In his eyes, the changes mark a return to an era when employers’ doctors sent injured workers to primitive medical laboratories and therapy centers, or what he dubs “dog labs and rusty hot tubs.”
“All of the progress of the last 30 years that labor fought for is gone for rot,” Silver said.
Employers and insurers have hailed the workers’ comp law signed Monday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a much-needed cure for spiraling premiums and a major enhancement to the state’s business climate. But lawyers in the workers’ comp trenches, including Silver, are alarmed by new provisions that they say eliminate workers’ ability to choose their physicians, limit medical treatment, disregard chronic pain and drastically reduce compensation to workers for lifetime disabilities.
Some predict that aspects of the law will be challenged. This “will go to the California Supreme Court,” said Ken Rowen, a workers’ com lawyer in Van Nuys, “because it’s not so much reform as it is revolution.”
In Sacramento, workers’ comp lawyers such as Silver haven’t always been painted in the best light: Some have described them as ambulance chasers who milk the system and drive up costs.
But in fact, legal fees in workers’ comp cases are closely regulated. Even before the overhaul, lawyers earned nothing when they helped a worker obtain medical treatment or compensation for a temporary disability. That remains the case: Attorneys are paid only when their clients are declared permanently disabled, and their fees are capped at 15% of total payments. That’s a relative bargain in an era when legal contingency fees of 30% and 40% are routine in personal injury cases.
Workers’ comp attorneys are operating “on razor-thin margins,” said Nick Pace, a Rand Corp. Institute of Civil Justice researcher. “If they only pay you 15% on the winners, you can’t have many losers in your stable.... Why are they going to take cases that are without merit?”
As for Silver, he is handling about 500 workers’ comp matters.
“I would invite Gov. Schwarzenegger to spend a week in my office,” said Silver, one of five lawyers in his firm. “I help people all day long. I save their jobs. I get them medical care.”
For Silver, 56, the only good thing about the new workers’ comp law is that it came too late to undercut client Paulino Figueroa’s claim.
Nearly three years ago, the produce driver was delivering a load of watermelons when an accident on the Santa Monica Freeway maimed him. Figueroa suffered a herniated disc. His right leg was broken and his left leg was amputated above the knee.
Most of Figueroa’s medical bills have been covered, but he has still not received a dime in compensation for his injuries.
At a meeting this week in Silver’s office, Figueroa described how his back often hurts, and how the pain in his good leg won’t allow him to stand for more than 10 minutes at a time. His prosthesis also is uncomfortable, but he keeps it on because it helps him stay balanced while sitting.
As if to prove he wasn’t faking it, the former trucker rolled up a pant leg and revealed his stump of a thigh. A shiny metal hinge connects the stump to a long piece of hard plastic covered in thick foam.
After the accident, Figueroa said, he wanted to kill himself. Now he is on an anti-depressant. “I can’t sit. I can’t lift. I can’t do much,” said Figueroa, 45, a father of three.
His case is set for trial before a workers’ compensation judge in June. Silver is confident that the judge will agree with Figueroa’s doctor that the ex-truck driver is fully and permanently disabled, making him eligible for the maximum award: $490 a week for life.
Although that is less than half what Figueroa earned before the accident, it is far better than he would do under the just-signed workers’ comp law. If that applied, he might be declared partially disabled and his benefits cut to about $230 weekly for 12 years. “That would be tragic,” Silver said.
Silver also met with another client, a West Covina police sergeant.
The policeman went back to work a month after he had a heart attack on the job. Now, more than two years later, claim managers are balking at paying for an expensive heart medication.
Silver promised to get the necessary paperwork filed to ensure the drug continues to be covered.
His next client was Patricia Carter, a retail cashier, who cried as she described how she was fired after filing a claim for a back injury she sustained when she attempted to lift a heavy load into a customer’s car.
Looking momentarily helpless, Silver buzzed his secretary to bring in a box of tissues. He told Carter that he would help her get the treatment she needed and maybe even her job back.
“Thank you for helping me,” she said. “You are a blessing.”
Silver said that his workers’ comp colleagues “are very depressed” about the legislation.
“Others are angry at the politics of it,” he said. “Others are in shock and denial.
“I am all of those things.”
Times staff writer Nancy Cleeland contributed to this report.