Although the work is fiction, it is based on actual cases drawn from
the California Workers Compensation system. Continuous Trauma
is the first novel set against the Kafkaesque world of workers' compensation,
and a must read for anyone that has to deal with the "System." Author Stein
gives the reader some brutally honest insights into the workings of the
system that would be useful to anyone who has to cope with filing a claim.
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Paperback - 342 pages
First edition ( October 2001)
Dr. Leisure; ISBN: 1-887471-28-6 ; Dimensions (in inches): .8 X 9 X 6
Free: first eight pages
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Workers comp system exposed in legal thriller
Mauian Michael Eric Stein has written a legal thriller
with a setting that will make your blood boil: the hearing rooms and hallways
of the California workers compensation system.
His beleaguered hero is lawyer Charlie Solomon who, after years of representing businesses determined not to pay a dime for worker injuries, finds himself on the other side of the hearing table when a plaintiff flips out and Solomon is suddenly an injured worker himself. It ends badly for Charlie, who loses his job, his girlfriend and identity for a while, but in the end, he makes a dent in the corrupt system that has let so many down.
Stein knows about he system, a friend was hurt on the job and lost significant mobility in one arm because her injury went so long untreated while she fought for compensation. The novel is dedicated to her.
In researching this novel in the aftermath of that experience, Stein sat in on mandatory settlement conferences, judges' conferences and trials and talked to lawyers, judges, insurance examiners and workers. "I've never seen an example of so many presumably decent, educated professionals collaborating with cynical chuckles up their sleeves in a system so irredeemably destructive to the people it was supposedly trying to help," Stein said.
Outrage is a tricky motivation for a writer; While it can fuel the flame, it also can result in turgid, preachy text. Stein has avoid that pitfall here and written a well paced thriller while exposing a wrong of which many people are not aware.
Michael Eric Stein's Continuous Trauma may become to the California Worker's Compensation System what Upton Sinclair's The Jungle became to the meat packing industry in the early 1900's. Author Stein gives us valuable insight into the workings of the Compensation System with a fictionalized account drawn from actual case histories of the agency. Stein spent years researching this book and worked closely with individuals personally involved in the system. After reading this account, you have to feel compassion and concern for anyone that has to deal with this bureaucracy.
Dr. George R. Harker
Maui, Hawaii - October 2001
Note added August 2002. Read Michael Eric Stein's suggestions on how
to improve the system. Click here: Modest
Proposal for Improvement
In Los Angeles, it can be deadly to work for a living.
Charlie Solomon, a shrewd young up-and-coming defense lawyer for a major workers compensation insurance company, knows his job. Treat just about every worker claiming compensation within “the System” for on-the-job injuries as a liability or a cheat. Make sure those workers get only what they deserve - as little as possible. Or deny and delay their cases until they go away, go on Social Security or welfare, or die.
Then a case in which Charlie denies an injured woman her benefits catastrophically backfires.
Charlie plunges through the looking glass. Physically and mentally damaged, he becomes just another outcast worker, a victim of the System he once fought for.
Gripped by post-traumatic nightmares, sucked into the underbelly of L.A. life, and on the verge of losing everything, including his sanity, he reaches out for the only people who can help him. A beautiful, volatile woman who just might know why the System is destroying him. A young man even more damaged by the System than he is.
With their help, he discovers evidence of massive health care fraud within the world that once nurtured his career – but can he find in himself the conviction to reveal the truth before the corruption takes an even more awful toll?
The System is going down….
Michael Eric Stein has written episodes for television shows such
as Miami Vice and True Blue, and a television movie, Higher Ground, for
CBS. He has also been a journalist and movie critic for Copley News, The
Los Angeles Times, and Films in Review. This is his first novel.
Contact the author: Michael Eric Stein at firstname.lastname@example.org
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
Michael Eric Stein's Continuous Trauma
George R. Harker's He Wouldn't Drink the Hemlock: The Firing of Dr. Leisure
George R. Harker's The Mostly True Life Adventures of Dr Leisure Vol. II
California State Department of Industrial
Relations - Tap into this state bureau that seeks
to improve working conditions and opportunities for California residents. Read stats and laws.
California Workers' Compensation
Information - LRA's California Workers'
Compensation Information Page: WCAB Information, WCAB FORMS, Forms Software.
www.wcrinet.org Organization which attempts to provide the public with "objective, credible high quality research" on workers comp-related public policy issues, and be a catalyst for improvements in the system.
A site specifically designed to inform and assist injured workers.
Also very much a web support group, full of horror stories from across
the country about workers suffering from the denial of their legitimate
workers compensation claims. This is the site to visit to find out you're not alone. Learn about the Injured Workers Bill of Rights, the Injured Workers' Manifesto, and National Workers Compensation Protest Day (May 16).
The Nolo "Law For All" website, featuring frequently asked questions
about workers compensation.
www.workinjury.com Goldberger and Associates' useful page on California Workers Compensation laws and procedures for the injured worker.
A special report by this Santa Rosa, California paper on the nightmarish
problems of the workers comp system and possible solutions.
Guide to Hawaii's workers compensation laws.
Have a test read of partial first chapter of Continuous Trauma.
a bad day at the orifice
It was sweat but not sweat. His skin was boiling
and he...she...eyes shut but the light blasting through his eyelids...and
what if his skin was cut... with all the things that had happened to her...black-and-white
embrace...the light suffocated him...but now a strong hand led him to a
bench, so kind amid all the shrieking...yes, I'm Charlie…Charlie Solomon…I
know where I am and what happened….
They came, as they always did, in their neck braces
and casts, with their crutches and their canes and their wheelchairs. They
filed in sluggishly and plunked themselves down at the dirty white tables
with skewed metallic umbrellas. As their numbers increased, they sat in
rows on the benches and chairs and finally on the rims of the stone magnolia
planters: a procession of the halt and the lame, scars ready to be bared,
their faces assuming a purgatorial scowl in the relentless heat.
Charlie Solomon scrutinized the day's load of worker’s comp claimants, then dragged his carryall heaped with legal files across the courtyard of the Van Nuys State Workers Compensation Board. He was still sore from a hard tennis game on Sunday, and the case files on the carryall today were so heavy that they had strained his back even worse.
He had spent ten minutes down in the garage loading the files from his car trunk onto the aluminum carryall, amid the squealing echoes of other lawyers’ carryalls trundled across stone floors, beneath exhaust-darkened concrete beams and the incongruous warbling of finches. The pendaflex folders buckled and slid over each other. Papers leaked out the sides. Every attorney in the Los Angeles worker’s comp system began the day the same way, dragging a load of files up to the hearing rooms. But usually it was the claimant lawyers, representing up to fifty allegedly injured workers at any one time, who had the mountains of files on their carryalls. Defense lawyers for the insurance companies like Charlie would tote to work maybe six or seven case files.
But Sheila Reed vs. the Bernard-Duvall Health and Wellness Clinic was hardly your usual case. Charlie steered the top-heavy carryall down the courtyard towards the waiting area. He noticed to his dismay that the wheel was catching and squeaking. The weight of the files was actually deforming the aluminum frame.
The morning had turned acrid and sultry, and Charlie blinked in its coarsening glare. The Van Nuys Workers Compensation building was three stories of jauntily angled stucco mezzanines, balconies, and exposed stairwells built around an atrium. It had been designed to be open and cheerful, but on the average San Fernando Valley day, with the sun blazing through that bright, happy latticework roof, it was a heat trap. Whenever you had to cross the courtyard to take a leak, or grab an iced tea in the cafeteria, ninety-eight degrees of smog-curdled Valley sun would slam you in the face.
A large group of lawyers gathered in front of the court calendar schedules posted on flats by the entrance doors. Chatting busily they looked like between-seminar conventioneers, until one would call a name - “Muldaur? M-u-l-d-a-u-r” - and dash off towards the claimants waiting on the benches. A spark of interest would light up the face of whichever injured worker was meeting his lawyer for the first time, as the other claimants watched with torpid indifference. They had all the enthusiasm of passengers squatting by a derailed Amtrak. The average disputed worker’s comp claim, from the claimant’s filing of the lawsuit to its resolution, took seven months to a year, and that was only if there wasn't the welter of disputes that marked the Sheila Reed case.
Charlie wondered if Ms. Reed was actually seated in the courtyard, waiting out today's events. He probably wouldn't recognize her. In the files he had found a photo that was clearly a “before” picture that would be entered into evidence by her worker’s comp attorney. The actual appearance of Sheila in the court would be the “after” image of five years of untreated illness that the judge would be asked to consider in all its rueful decay.
Charlie remembered that Kodacolor photo. Three legal secretaries, arms around each other, enjoying a day at Zuma Beach. The young woman in the middle had bright, teasing eyes, straight hair halfway down her back, and a sensational body: lean, hard abs, the kind of thighs you saw in photos of exotic dancers from the Fifties, heavy but superbly toned. Sheila Reed had been a volleyball player for U.C. Irvine. He tried to spot her among the women carrying stuffed daypacks and Walkmans for their hours of bus travel to and from worker's comp court.
Sheila was now on welfare, living in a ratty apartment with her brother. U.C. Irvine, Class of '83.
Charlie really felt it now, a wave of anticipation laced with dread. The whole worker’s comp judicial process was geared towards settlement, settlement, settlement. That was why, before any hearing on any worker's alleged injury was held, there had to be a Mandatory Settlement Conference. That's why judges would have a Mobius-loop of a schedule and be slated to hear five cases in four hours - because three would most certainly settle out.
But there were always the two that wouldn't, the exasperating, bewildering cases that fermented in “the System” for years in a mass of motions and counter-motions until they poisoned the attitudes of everyone they touched. No one was in the mood for artful compromises on the five-year Sheila Reed case. District Manager Ted Shackleton had instructed Charlie to repeat Hobart-Riis Insurance's last settlement offer to Ms. Reed, then fold the cards. If necessary, blow off Sheila Reed's case without any settlement at all. Nail her with a “take-nothing.”
And Charlie knew that Ms. Reed’s attorney, Elizabeth Worcek, would never agree to his bosses’ token settlement offer. Not when she could argue at top volume that her client had been damaged for five years by an evil insurance company refusing to pay an honest worker’s comp injury claim. So today Charlie had something extra on his plate, a rare event in the life of a worker's comp attorney. Today would be an actual trial.
The clerk took the medical reports Charlie was serving
on the Board and time-stamped them without so much as a nod in his direction.
The waiting room was as busy and noisy as ever. Lawyers went down the row
of chairs talking on the fly with their claimants, or stood murmuring into
the public phones like an order of cheap-suited supplicants at prayer.
Charlie could already feel the sweat chafing at his neck.
He spotted a tall, ash-blonde woman with dry mottled skin, who was chatting with Ben Salerno, a claimant lawyer Charlie was acquainted with from a case two years ago. Her twitching hand held fast to a cigarette. She would light it the nanosecond she left the no-smoking building. Charlie knew about the blonde, a waitress at a low-grade comedy club. Some heckler had grabbed her ass. Trying to get away from him, she claimed, she wrenched her knee out. Completely destroyed her knee out of shock and horror at getting her butt swatted by a drunk at the Funny Farm. And then there was the psychological trauma the event caused this veteran waitress, who now claimed total inability to ever return to her usual and customary employment. Ben Salerno was putting on his best shrewdly sardonic masculinity for this client who, whatever her knee problems, had quite a rack on her.
“Yeah?” chuckled the blonde. “Who's worse mad?”
“It's bullshit. Dr. Mintz - the one who said you could no longer bend your knee past 90 degrees - now he says you can run marathons. We deposed him; he said what he said on July 15 and that doesn't go away.”
“Some fuckin' bedside manner he's got, huh? Hey, so I can still exercise a little. You know, chronic pain affects another part of the brain in women, right?”
Exercise a little? Charlie couldn't help noticing she had the kind of deeply cleft, supple ass you only got from pushing major Stair. A word popped out of whatever memories of Yiddish he had. “Traife.” Unkosher trash. This woman knows the game, and some club owner who at least ponied up for legitimate worker's comp insurance has to pay the price.
The whistling came from behind him. Charlie smiled at the melody, “Sealed With A Kiss”, and looked over his shoulder at his fellow defense lawyer Jerry Kaukonen.
“What you think, Charlie? Ben's going to get over with her?”
When it came to women, Kaukonen had a one-track mind, and Charlie knew just how to talk to it. “Legally or sexually, Jerry?”
“Christ, Charlie, Ben's got no chance of getting laid here. Not without heavy equipment.” They both gazed at the biker waitress in her knee-braced spandex and black leather jacket. “From what I hear, Ben might get her some p.d., even vocational rehab.”
“You’re telling me this woman could get permanent disability payments and training for a new job because someone made a pass at her?”
“That’s why we insurance shysters are on the side of the angels, Charlie.” Kaukonen whistled another tune, an old Beach Boys hit, “Little deuce coupe/ You don't know what I got…” An aging former beach hippie and d.j., Kaukonen used a cluster of '60's tunes to tag the claimants in the courtyard. Some were “Little Deuce Coupes,” tasty settlements for his claimant lawyer adversaries. The opposites, claimants Kaukonen knew he could shoot down, were “Deadman's Curves” - a tune he also used for certain gorgeous female claimants. Then there were cases like the Sheila Reed case, the “Endless Summers” that dragged on for months or years towards a Compromise and Release settlement that would please nobody, and sometimes degenerated into “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdowns,” when claimants would get a hearing and sob to the judge about how the damn system had denied their rights, ruined their lives...
“What the hell have you got there?”
“Oh,” Charlie sighed, “a draw-the-short-straw ball-buster-and-a-half. Sheila Reed vs. Bernard-Duvall Clinic.” Charlie looked at the column of files. “This case has been in the system since I was in law school.”
“Wait a minute. The office manager, right? She claimed this one doctor drove her off her job and made her sick, they said she walked off the job, she said she notified them of her injury but they lost the files?”
“Yep. Not a promising beginning.”
“I thought that case was safely in legal limbo by now.”
“Liz Worcek got ahold of it. She shoehorned it back into the court calendar, just in time for me to inherit the fucker.”
“Hoo boy. Worcek.” He shook his head as if Charlie had just told him he had gallstones. “Well, gotta book, Charlie. Got three conferences, two trials, and a deposition in fucking Baldwin Hills.” Kaukonen shook his head balefully. “Bad day at the orifice.”
Kaukonen was pulling the cheesiest defense lawyer trick: sign up for an unworkable schedule. Two cases would be kicked over because Kaukonen couldn't show, and Kaukonen would arrive for the other so late that the court reporter (of which the system had short supply) would be yanked for another trial. The result would be three more free passes for Kaukonen, and three more six-month delays in the cases of three more injured claimants. “Oh well,” Kaukonen added, “I think I can settle Lanie Badham's broken hip pretty cheap. Her lawyer's Jag needs a tune-up.” His eyes flicked sidewise. “Say hello to Miss Congeniality for me.”
Vel was sitting at one of the tables in the cafeteria. Charlie could see her through the glass doors, sipping an iced tea as she leafed through her files. As always, she seemed to funnel a silence around her with her concentration, black hair swept back over her forehead in a barrette, index finger poised above her thumb as if drawing a silk strand out of the air.
“So, Charlie, is Vel playful? I mean, playing safely, of course. I hate to think either of you are at risk.”
“Jerry, this is getting old. We go back. Not out.”
Vel looked up at them. Charlie knew she wouldn't budge from her seat with Kaukonen behind him. He leaked little sputters of sexual avarice talking to Vel, and Vel couldn't stand his middle-aged horndog schtick.
“Good thing, Charlie. You don’t want to catch what she’s got.”
“Don't you have fifty cases to go to, Jerry?”
“The master of space and time.” He whistled another tune as a parting shot at Vel. “I Can't Get No Satisfaction.”
Charlie had long ago noticed how he and his fellow worker's comp lawyers all had their game faces on the minute they walked into the hearing rooms. Kaukonen always played the reprobate. Charlie could feel his own pose creep up on him, the sleepy-eyed, silken charmer in tennis whites, baiting his opponent, waiting for the moment to pounce and drive home the best possible settlement. His friend Elena Velasquez's working vogue was the prim Catholic girl armored with intellectual disdain, ruthlessly freezing claimant lawyers out of any easy dealmaking, forcing them to play on her own severe terms and lose. It was a successful enough facade that it had taken Charlie six months to get past it and discover a mischievous, arrogant, yet thoroughly enjoyable personality.
“I got nabbed by a lienclaimant. Right in the cafeteria over my bagel.”
Vel gestured towards a tall woman in a boxy plaid skirt. “The one that looks like a Scotch tape dispenser.”
“What's the lien about?”
“Psych claim. She's got a serious Del Rio problem, though.” Vel irritably skimmed the pages of her file. “Her boss, a psychiatrist, submitted a bill for treatment of Delores Jackson for depression. However Ms. Jackson did not claim she got clinically depressed on the job” - Vel's finger jabbed down on the notice - “until five months after this psychiatrist treated her.”
“Not too clever.”
“We set up a meeting with Judge Gelman. I should be able to send her packing about two minutes. It’s a nuisance, though. I think the claim went back to file.”
Annoyance came off Vel in waves. The shitwork of a defense lawyer's day was ridding potential settlements of encumbrances, getting frivolous or fraudulent lien claims from doctors and shrinks dismissed - and it was much worse when you had to go dig out the records from the file room. The County, always on the lookout for cheap labor, hired their file clerks out of a pool of petty criminals doing community service. Charlie had often gotten sullen glares from these shoplifters and barfighters turned civil servants, as they retreated into the back rooms to sluggishly comb through the files. “I've got three M.S.C.'s today, and then I've got to go down to San Diego for my cousin's wedding. I didn't need this, Charles.”
Vel was one of the only people he knew who called him by his full name. Charlie had long ago gotten used to being called almost anything. His name was that kind of all-things-to-all-people name. To his dad, “Charles” or “Chuck” sounded friendly, solid and bankerish, to his mother “Charlie” or “Chazz” sounded cool and jazzy. Still, it felt weird when Vel addressed him by his formal name, although Vel explained that was because she was used to the Spanish name, Carlos. A regal name, she told him - he should be proud.
“How's your day shaping up, Charles?”
“I've got one M.S.C., which I'm looking forward to, actually – I’ve got a bit of a surprise lined up, should be kind of fun.” His eyes fell to the huge load of files. “And then on this Sheila Reed case a last gasp offer in chambers.”
“Who’s the claimant attorney?”
Charlie made a face that was the equivalent of a groan. “Worcek. You better believe she’s going to shoot my offer down.”
“You mean ‘shout it down.’ Always ‘j’accuse’ with her. You’re heading for a trial, Charles.”
“Yeah. Lucky me.” Talking with Vel he found that sometimes the macho posturing that was part of the routine slipped away. “Hobart-Riis expects me to get a 'take-nothing'.”
Her ironical smile and little intake of breath mirrored his own. “On a disputed case that goes back five years? That's too bad.”
“Well, I am defending the Bernard-Duvall Clinic. The doctors we send workers to to prove they’re not really injured. Our boys.”
“Well,” she sighed, “whatever you do - do it smartly.”
She spiraled her fingers in a little wave, and headed off. Charlie watched Vel for a moment, her unruffled, plumbline posture as she confronted the fidgety lienclaimant, and as he left the courtyard, he could see Vel leading her away like a teacher about to give a pupil a difficult scolding.
“Can you believe this bullshit? My client can't grip a pencil,
and Mr. Solomon over here says 'only 7% disability rating’. Seven percent!”
Charlie grinned as he busied himself with his papers, and replied “Bob, you’re the only claimant lawyer I know who would try to sell an arthritic client as a fresh industrial injury. I'm impressed.”
“You should be, you little pischer. Actually, you should get arthritis.You wouldn't speak so lightly.”
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