WHISTLE-BLOWERS & THE MESS IN HAPPY VALLEY: A trial lawyer’s perspective

Recently, I have taken a case on behalf of a whistle-blower who found herself in a difficult circumstance similar to that of the legendary football coach.  My client choose to call the police and soon found herself without a job.  I’ve been thinking about the more famous and less famous cases.

Being an avid reader and huge sports fan, I often enjoy the ability of sportswriter Rick Telander to put things in perspective.  Here is some of what he had to say:

“As the heinous and surreal details of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s alleged destruction of innocent souls are brought to light, we can only start looking up the chain of command and wonder how this could happen….”  (Rick Telander, Chicago Sun Times, Sunday November 13, 2011).

Mr. Telander’s column goes on to discuss the power of institutions, namely universities and the NCAA.  However, as I primarily write about litigation in this blog, I am more concerned about the power of the institutions of corporation and State.  Our Land of Lincoln and many other states have recently been focused on becoming more “business friendly.”  This has been described by some as “profits over people.”   Creating a strong climate for businesses becomes the ultimate “good”, and individuals who file suit against businesses are reviled and vilified.  In this type of climate, people sometimes hesitate to do the right thing.  Telander goes on to remind us of the sorry truth:

“Whistle-blowers don’t often win.  They are stigmatized, marginalized, fired, obliterated….”

Fortunately, Illinois and federal law contain strong protections for whistle-blowers.  Under the Illinois Whistle-Blower Statute (740 ILCS 174/1, et seq.), an employee may not adopt or enforce a rule or policy prohibiting employees from reporting illegal conduct to law enforcement, and may not retaliate against an employee that does so.  An employer may be liable for damages, including reinstatement with seniority status restored, back pay with interest, and compensation for attorney fees and litigation costs.

If you are disgusted by the failure to act, don’t “shoot the messenger” when someone does speak up.  A person faced with knowledge of a serious crime committed by a co-worker needs to know that they can do the right thing and call the police with the full protection of the law behind them.

For more information about this subject or the author, Chicago litigation attorney Steven A. Sigmond, call (312) 258-8188 or return to our website at www.siglaw.com.

Posted in Illinois, Law Office of Steven A. Sigmond, Legal News, Personal Injury, SigmondLaw Blog | Leave a comment

State Farm: Not Such A Good Neighbor After All

Seven years ago, Justice Karmeier was the swing vote in a decision to overturn a $1 million verdict against State Farm Insurance.  At the time, he admitted that State Farm had contributed $350,000 to his campaign to be elected to the Illinois Supreme Court and the Plaintiff called for the Justice to recuse himself from the decision because of his obvious bias.  The United States Supreme Court, however, said that Justice Karmeier could take part in the decision because the campaign donation was too low to actually sway his judgment.  But it’s been revealed that State Farm donated between $2 and 4 million to his $4.5 million campaign.

 The Plaintiff has now filed a motion to reconsider the case, claiming that State Farm bought a verdict when they lied and misled the Court about the campaign donations.  Justice Karmeier claims that since the issue of whether he had to recuse himself has been to the Supreme Court and he was allowed to weigh in on the verdict.  And to add to the controversy, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a West Virginia Supreme Court judge should not have ruled in a case involving a coal-mining company that raised the lion’s share of his campaign’s budget.

The question here, though, is not only whether State Farm effectively “bought” this verdict, but also how many similar verdicts have they swayed in a similar manner?  When insurance companies are allowed to donate huge amounts of money to judicial candidates through Political Action Committees, our entire justice system is undermined.  The decision of a jury comprised of twelve impartial citizens from the community in which the controversy originates shouldn’t be overturned in this manner.

When we let big business and national insurance companies have such enormous influence over our judicial elections, we deprive the ordinary citizen of the chance to balance the scales.  Contributions like this must be limited and the amounts of those contributions must be public.

The next time an insurance adjuster tells  you that you don’t need an attorney because he’ll “be fair,” consider the source.

For more information about the author, Chicago Accident Lawyer Steven A. Sigmond, visit www.chicagoaccidentlawyer.com, or call us at (312) 756-1186.

 

 

Posted in Illinois, Law Office of Steven A. Sigmond, Legal News, Personal Injury | Leave a comment

Bicycle Riders Have Rights

With the advent of the green movement, many people are advocating the virtues of bike riding, especially people in large cities.  It’s low cost, low energy, and frees up public transportation space for those of you who hate bike riding.  However, most drivers are not used to sharing the roads with bikers, causing confusion and dangerous situations.  For instance, a driver turning right may be unaware of a biker on his right side trying to continue straight on the same road.  This can cause a serious collision.  In some cases, the roadways themselves aren’t safe.  Roads may have potholes or depressions in them which could trip up bikers and cause them to fall on the pavement.  This is what happened to a Kings County resident who suffered severe brain trauma when he hit a small hole in the pavement that was fine for a car, but unsafe for a bike.

It’s a good thing then that major cities are taking the needs of their biking citizens seriously.  Chicago is working hard to build dedicated bike lanes on busy city streets to protect bikers from motorized traffic.  In fact, one such bike lane opened up right next to our offices on Kinzie Street.  Because Kinzie is now safer for bikers to traverse, the City of Chicago estimates bike riders account for 48% of the rush hour commute on Milwaukee and Kinzie.

Chicago also has special ordinances on the books just to protect bike riders from motorized traffic.  Remember the example I mentioned with the biker going straight and the car trying to turn right?  Chicago Ordinance 9-16-020 states that the driver has to wait until they are clear of the bicycle to turn right.  In other words, the biker going straight has the right-of-way.  A car turning left must also wait until a biker who is in the intersection or near it is safely through the intersection before turning right, and if passing a bicycle, must maintain a safe distance of at least three feet from the bicycle until it has overtaken the bicycle.

This is not to say that a bicyclist always has the right-of-way.  Bike enthusiasts must still follow traffic laws, use hand signals, and have proper lighting equipment if riding at night.  If you are a courier or make deliveries on your bicycle you must wear a helmet.  (Though wearing a helmet is always a good idea!)  You can learn all the rules of biking in Illinois at the Secretary of State’s website or you can request a pamphlet.  And if you are injured while riding your bike, get immediate medical attention and call for legal advice, or visit my website for more information at www.siglaw.com.  Remember, bike riders have just as much right to the road as anyone else.

For more information about this subject or the author, Chicago injury attorney Steven A. Sigmond, call (312) 258-8188 or return to our website at www.siglaw.com.

Posted in Illinois, Law Office of Steven A. Sigmond, Personal Injury, Practicing Law in Chicago, SigmondLaw Blog | 1 Comment

MONDAY MORNING FOR A LAWYER

I had to be in Court at 9:00 am this morning, so I had to put on the suit and tie. There was some car trouble over the weekend, so I was going to take the train. It’s only a three block walk to the Metra station, but I had to carry my computer case and gym bag, which I took home over the weekend. The tempurature was about 90 degrees and the humidity about 95% After walking briskly for three blocks (so as to catch the train) carrying my suitcoat, gym bag and computer case, I had a nice rolling sweat going. When I arrived downtown, I decided to have a cup of coffee at the Metra Market. I sat down there, flipped on my computer, sipped my coffee, and thought that maybe it could turn out to be a pleasant morning after all…
As I sat there, I noticed that it was getting less light outside, and thought that it was about time to wrap up my work and get to the office. Suddenly it turned dark as night, the doors to the train station blew closed, simultaneous thunder and lightning errupted, and pouring rain and howling winds immediately followed. It was then that I remembered that I had taken the umbrella out of my gym bad just before leaving home because I was concerned over how much stuff I was carrying. By now it was after 8:00, but finishing my coffee and staying put a while seemed like a good idea.
By 8:25 it was time to move, only because court was at 9:00. I could have gone straight there, but I was still lugging a gym bag and computer case that I really didn’t need to have with me in court, and I didn’t have this morning’s file, which I really did need. So, I went into CVS, bought another umbrella, and decided to head to the office and then double back to Court. In the three block walk from the Metra Station to my office, naturally my new umbrella got turned inside out and upside down and generally got mangled in the wind, leaving me soaking wet. I got into the office, dropped my things, grabbed my file, and went back to outside, trying to make double time back to court. “Nice umbrella,” a passerby commented. I decided to just let it rain on me. At least I stopped sweating.
I arrived at the Daley Center and got off the elevator just as it was turning 9:00, with my shirt collar unbuttoned and my tie still stuffed in my pocket. Turn left for the courtroom or right for the men’s room? Right. After buttoning up the soaking shirt, knotting my wrinkled wet tie, looking hoplessly at my wet hair, I hurried back around the corner to the courtroom…
“The Judge will be absent this morning…” read the sign posted on the locked door. Everyone with a case scheduled for this morning was instructed by the sign to return next monday morning.
How’s your Monday?

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FELL AT WORK & GETTING COMP; CAN I SUE?

This is a topic that comes up often.  It involves the relationship between workers comp and personal injury.  In this particular case, I was asked whether someone who fell at work and is getting workers comp can also sue.

The short answer is:  It depends upon where you fell.  If you were on the premises of your employer, no there is no further action you can take.  If you were on-duty but off-premises, then yes, potentially you can still sue someone other than your employer.

Please allow me to explain.  Workers comp is an exclusive remedy.   When the state created the workers compensation system to compensate injured workers, it took away the right of employees to sue their employers for work related injuries.  Negligence is not a factor in a workers comp case.  In general, the injured worker need only prove that he was hurt while working.  If he can, then the worker is entitled to benefits including paid medical bill, TTD (payment for time off of work) and PPD (payment for disability).  Injured workers can make this claim against the employer, but it is the ONLY claim they can make against the employer.  Thus, it is an exclusive remedy.

That being said, there is nothing in the workers compensation act that prevents an injured worker from filing a personal injury suit against a third party that caused his injury based upon the same circumstance that gave rise to the workers compensation case.   “Third Party” in this context means anyone other than the injured worker himself and the employer that caused the injury.  You cannot sue an on-duty co-worker for causing a work injury, because the employer would still be responsible.

A common example where an injured worker can file both a workers compensation claim and a personal injury claim would be someone driving in the course of employment who is hit by another car.  Someone making a delivery within the course of his employment who is hurt while making the delivery at the premises of another business would be another example.

Two more important thing you should know:  First, the workers compensation carrier has a lien upon the personal injury case for everything that they pay out.  Second, in order to succeed in a personal injury case the victim does need to prove negligence, and that can be a challenge in slip and fall cases

In many cases, it can be advantageous to file both a workers comp and personal injury case for the same event.

For more information about this subject or the author, Chicago injury attorney Steven A. Sigmond, call (312) 258-8188 or return to our website at www.siglaw.com.

Posted in Illinois, Law Office of Steven A. Sigmond, Personal Injury, SigmondLaw Blog, Workers' Compensation | 2 Comments

This Isn’t About Reform. It’s About Insurance Companies Wanting More Profits, As Usual.

A recent item in the news tells that a committee has been appointed to study reforms to the Illinois Workers Compensation Act.  This so-called “Business Community” has suggested certain “reforms.”

The first thing that you need to know is that “Business Community” in this context simply means “Insurance Industry Lobbyists.” They would simply like to pay less money to injured workers.

The second thing you need to know is that the system works just fine in serving its intended purpose:  protecting and fairly compensating injured workers. Decisions are made by professional arbitrators, based on established guidelines and medical evidence.

The same people who keep telling us we need “tort reform” due to irresponsible juries (also not true, but that’s a topic for another day) are now telling us that we need protection in workers comp cases, where there are no juries. See the common thread? Insurance companies wanting to pay less to injury victims.

One of the basic rights in the Illinois Workers Compensation system is that an injured worker may see his own doctor, and be guided by the doctor’s advice.  This should be a basic right of anybody in any situation, shouldn’t it?  But now, the “Business Community” is suggesting that we change the rules and require injured workers to see only the company doctor. They want the public to believe that this is being done in the name of impartiality and cost cutting.  Aren’t these the same people that that claim they want to “get government off our backs?”  Now, they want a state law regulating a victim’s right to choose his own doctor.

The people of Illinois need to realize that the proposed workers comp “reform” isn’t about fixing something that’s broken.  It’s only about restricting an individual’s rights so that a special interest group can turn higher profits.

For more information about this subject or the author, Chicago injury attorney Steven A. Sigmond, call (312) 258-8188 or return to our website at www.siglaw.com.

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Job Status Of Injured Workers Is More Secure After Recent Supreme Court Case

Can they fire me for this? That is a question I get asked fairly often when interviewing new clients who are considering filing a workers’ compensation case. In times like these, people have every right to be concerned. It’s illegal for an employer to fire an employee in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation case. Very few employers would be foolish enough to risk being sued for retaliatory discharge by overtly firing someone for no reason other than that the employee exercised his or her right to obtain workers’ compensation benefits.

However, I also tell anyone who asks me that question: watch your back. Pay special attention to following every workplace rule. Don’t give an employer an excuse to terminate your employment on some violation that the employer can claim is unrelated to the injury. I’ve seen this happen a number of times. A particular rule that was previously ignored, conduct that had previously been acquiesced, or an event that seemed like no big deal at the time, can suddenly be the subject of a meeting with the boss after word has gotten around about a workers’ compensation claim.

With this backdrop in mind, I read with interest the recent decision in the case of Illinois Scaffolding v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission. The case raised the question of whether an injured worker, fired for reasons unrelated to the injury, can continue to receive benefits. In short, the Illinois Supreme Court answered yes. An injured worker can continue to receive benefits for as long as he remains disabled from the work-related injury, whether or not he is still employed by the same employer.

“For the reasons stated above, we hold that an employer’s obligation to pay TTD benefits to an injured employee does not cease because the employee had been discharged—whether or not the discharge was for “cause.” When an injured employee has been discharged by his employer, the determinative inquiry for deciding entitlement to TTD benefits remains, as always, whether the claimant’s condition has stabilized. If the injured employee is able to show that he continues to be temporarily totally disabled as a result of his work-related injury, the employee is entitled to TTD benefits.”

The case is an important decision and a logical one for all the reasons stated. It is also important in the context of the question I am repeatedly asked: Can they fire me? They still can’t fire you in overt retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation case. They still can fire you for “cause” unrelated to the injury. However, because of the precedent set in the above-cited case, employers have less incentive to terminate injured workers for seemingly unrelated reasons. Therefore, we can hope to see less of these wrongful terminations in the future. This well-reasoned approach adopted by our state’s highest court protects the injured worker from this type of subtle retaliation. I applaud the ruling.

For more information about this subject or the author, Chicago injury attorney Steven A. Sigmond, call (312) 258-8188 or return to our website at www.siglaw.com.

Posted in Illinois, Law Office of Steven A. Sigmond, Legal News, Personal Injury, Workers' Compensation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment