Category Archives: Legislation

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Why Due Process Matters in Workers’ Compensation

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Two recent decisions from the state supreme courts in Oklahoma and Florida point out that how an injured worker gets workers’ compensation benefits is as important as how much an employee can receive in benefits for a work injury. In the parlance of constitutional law, the how a worker receives benefits is a termed “due process.”

Oklahoma – In Vasquez v. Dillard’s, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found the so-called “Oklahoma option” violated the equal protection clause of the state’s constitution. The Oklahoma option allowed employers to create their own workers’ compensation benefit plans under the Oklahoma Employee Injury Benefit Act (OEIBA) so long as they offered the same benefits as under the state workers’ compensation program. The problem that the Oklahoma Supreme Court had with “Oklahoma option” was that employers were allowed to design plans with procedures that made it more difficult for injured workers to collect benefits than if they were in the state system. In essence, the Oklahoma State Legislature had created separate but unequal workers’ compensation systems for employees injured on the job in that state, which was a violation of the equal-protection clause of the state constitution. But the deeper reason why the Oklahoma option was overturned was that it denied due process to workers who were covered under the OEIBA.

Florida – In Castellanos v. Next Door Company, the Florida Supreme Court struck down attorney fee limits in workers’ compensation cases on due process grounds under the U.S. and Florida constitutions. The Florida court found that fee caps deterred employees from bringing claims because they would be unable to find attorneys. The court also found that fee caps encouraged employers to wrongfully deny claims because workers would be unable to find lawyers to challenge denied claims. Though Castellanos wasn’t an equal protection case like Vasquez, the Florida court pointed out that employers faced no limits on how much they paid their attorneys. Fee caps for employees only created a situation where employees and employers had unequal protections under Florida’s workers’ compensation law.

Vasquez and Castellanos challenged and overturned state laws. But there are other ways for employees to challenge unfair denials of workers’ compensation benefits besides overturning state laws. In the Brown v. Cassens Transportation cases, a group of injured workers in Michigan used a civil RICO statute (anti-racketeering law) to challenge how their employer, the employer’s claims administrator, and a defense medical examiner worked together to undermine their workers’ compensation claims. In Brown, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that since employees gave up their right to a tort suit under Michigan law to receive certain workers’ compensation benefits, injured workers had a constitutionally protected property interest in both the receipt of workers’ compensation benefits and their claims for workers’ compensation benefits and that employer had conspired unlawfully to deny those benefits.

The court in Brown also recognized that workers’ compensation was the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries in Michigan, which is another reason why workers’ compensation benefits were constitutionally protected. The state supreme courts in Florida and Oklahoma also cited the exclusive remedy provisions of their state workers’ compensation acts to support their findings that state laws violated due process and equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitution.

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Removing The Safety Net: A National Trend Of Benefit Reductions For Injured Workers

Today’s post comes from guest author Catherine Stanton, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

Benefits for injured workers continue to be under attack throughout the country. In New York, there have been a number of changes in the last decade, all in the name of reform. These reforms were encouraging at first as they increased the weekly benefits for some higher wage-earning injured workers for the first time in decades. They also created medical treatment guidelines under the guise of allowing injured workers to obtain pre-approval on certain medical treatments and procedures. 

Unfortunately, the changes also resulted in reduction of benefits for many injured workers. Monetary benefits were capped, so injured workers deemed partially disabled could only receive a certain number of weeks of benefits regardless of their ability to return to their pre-injury jobs. The determination of the degree of disability has become a battle involving multiple, lengthy depositions of medical witnesses where the outcome is how long injured workers get wage replacement or whether they receive lifetime benefits. The criteria is not whether injured workers can return to their prior employment, but whether they are capable of performing any work at all, regardless of their past job experience or education. The battle is not limited to the amount of weeks of benefits injured workers can receive, however. The medical treatment guidelines, touted as getting injured workers prompt medical treatment, discounts the fact that if the requested treatment is not listed within the guidelines, it is denied and the burden is placed upon injured workers and their treating doctors to prove the requested treatment is necessary.

Other changes designed to cut administrative costs and court personnel include reducing the number of hearings held, thereby denying injured workers due process. There also has been a reduction in the number of presiding judges, and in many hearing locations the judges are not even at the site but are conducting hearings through video conferencing. At the end of October, the Board announced a new procedure authorizing the insurance carrier to request a hearing on whether injured workers should be weaned off of opioids that are used by many medical providers to treat chronic pain. While everyone would agree that the misuse of prescription pain medication is an epidemic in this country, many question whether the insurance industry really has the injured workers’ best interest at heart.    

As an attorney who has represented injured workers for more than 26 years, I have seen many workers successfully transition from injured worker back into the labor market. It is very encouraging to note that for many people the system has worked. They receive their treatment, which may involve physical therapy, surgery, pain management, prescription therapy, or whatever else their treating physician recommends. They are paid a portion of their prior income and after a period of convalescence, they are able to return to work. Some injured workers, however, are not so lucky. The decisions about what happens to those unable to work have been left to those who seem to care more about business and insurance industry profits. 

Just about one year ago, 14 people were killed and 22 more injured when ISIS-inspired terrorists went on a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California. The nation and the world were horrified to hear about this tragedy and the story was in the news for many weeks. Now a year has gone by and many of the survivors have complained about treatment being denied and prescription medication being cut off.  While many injuries happen quietly without the headlines seen in the California attack, there are many similarities. It seems that when an initial injury occurs, there are many good protections and benefits in place. However, as time goes on and costs increase, injured workers are looked upon as enemies to defeat or to forget about. Unfortunately for injured workers and their families, they don’t have this luxury and they don’t have the means to fight.

Most people don’t think it will ever happen to them. That is what most of my clients have thought as well.

 

Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717. 

 

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The Cancer Presumption in Workers’ Compensation

Today’s post comes from guest author Thomas Domer, from The Domer Law Firm.

What is a legal presumption? 

Can a legal presumption be rebutted by sufficient contrary evidence?

Wisconsin workers’ compensation law contains many presumptions. For example, for firefighters, it is presumed that if a firefighter has cancer, the cancer is employment-related. The Statute applies to any State, County, or Municipal firefighter who has worked for ten years with at least two-thirds of the working hours as a firefighter who has cancer of the skin, breast, central nervous system, or lymphatic, digestive, hematological, urinary, skeletal, oral, or reproductive systems. For that firefighter whose disability or death is caused by cancer, the cancer diagnosis is presumptive evidence that the cancer was caused by employment. However, no presumption exists for firefighters who smoke cigarettes or use tobacco products for claims after January 2001. (Wis. Stat. §891.455 Presumption of Employment Connected Disease: Cancer)

Other presumptions in Wisconsin law include a presumption that a youthful worker (under age 27) is presumed to be able to earn the maximum wage rate by the time he reaches age 27, for purposes of Permanent Partial Disability, disfigurement, or death. For example, a McDonalds burger-flipper earning $10 per hour who has a severe burn is presumed (instead of the $200 or $300 he actually earns per week) to be earning $1,400 per week under the Youthful Age Presumption. Evidence of the worker’s likely inability to earn the maximum wage (due to cognitive or academic deficiency or similar lower earning work history) can be used to rebut the presumption and therefore limit the maximum Permanent Partial Disability or disfigurement award.

In a recent cancer case, the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation board found a firefighter cannot receive workers’ compensation benefits for prostate cancer because he failed to show his cancer was work-related despite a statutory presumption for firefighters. The firefighter began working for the City of Philadelphia in the 1970s and retired in 2006 after a diagnosis of prostate cancer. He filed a workers’ compensation claim saying his cancer stemmed from carcinogens he was exposed to while working as a firefighter, such as diesel fumes from fire trucks, second hand tobacco smoke from co-workers, and smoke from burning debris he encountered while fighting fires. Note he also acknowledged he smoked an average of a half pack of cigarettes daily since the 1960s. His doctor’s testimony that his carcinogen exposure caused the prostate cancer was rebutted by the City’s physician indicating that prostate cancer is typically more of a “disease of aging than it is of external influence.” The Judge, in denying the claim, noted “Any elevated risks for prostate cancer among firefighters might also be explained by other factors, such as detection bias, ethnicity and geography.”

The cancer presumption in Wisconsin (for non-smoking firefighters) would be more difficult to rebut, but factors such as family history may prove the “other evidence” necessary to rebut the presumption.

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A Dismantling of the Grand Bargain That Created Workers’ Compensation

Today’s post comes from guest author Catherine Stanton, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

This week marks the official start of the holiday season. It is a time for family and loved ones, and a time to reflect on the blessings that we have received in our lives. This week marks the countdown to a number of holidays including Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa. Unfortunately for some people, however, the holiday season is fraught with anxiety, depression, illness and injury. Many people who sustain work-related injuries find that without their weekly salary, the holidays are a stark reminder of how their lives have changed dramatically. The inability to provide for even the basic necessities, let alone splurge on holiday presents, is a prescription for depression.

The Grand Bargain Premise of Workers’ Compensation laws in this country is that the employer, through their insurance carrier, is responsible to pay for injured workers’ medical treatment, lost wages, and permanent disability in exchange for injured workers giving up their rights to sue their employers for negligence. During the last couple of decades, Workers’ Compensation benefits have been under the continuous scrutiny of the Business Council, which has been alleging that the cost of benefits to injured workers is at the root of their increase in costs and reduction in profits.

However, a report from the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) indicates otherwise. Benefits as a percent of payroll declined in 46 states between 2010 and 2014, continuing a national trend in lower benefits relative to payroll that began in the 1990s. Costs to employers, on the other hand, continue to climb. Between 2010 and 2014, employer costs associated with Workers’ Compensation – such as insurance premiums, reimbursement payments, and administrative costs – grew at a rate nearly five times faster than benefits. Instead of using employers’ money to provide benefits for injured workers, insurance companies pay a host of businesses, including insurance medical examiners, nurse case managers, vocational rehabilitation companies and defense counsel, all of which profit from the system at the expense of workers and reap record profits for themselves. Meanwhile, the insurance industry and the Business Council falsely blame the claims of disabled workers so they can continue to increase profits by slashing benefits and shifting costs to taxpayer-funded programs instead of employer-paid insurance.

Benefits in New York have decreased under the current Workers’ Compensation system. The changes in the law in 2007 allowed higher wage earners to benefit in the short term as the amount of their weekly benefits has increased. However, these benefits are only available for a fixed period of time. If injured workers are able to return to work after a short period of lost time and a limited period of medical treatment, then some may say the system is a success. Unfortunately for many severely-injured high and low wage earners, the Grand Bargain wasn’t so grand. Medical providers’ hands are tied by Medical Treatment guidelines that limit the amount of treatment authorized based upon “best practices” or cookie cutter treatment, as opposed to what is recommended by the treating doctor. Now there is the prospect of limiting prescription medications as well, all in the name of cost reduction.

The reduction of medical treatment based on the treatment guidelines to injured workers should not imply they are fully recovered. Also, they don’t all return to work once they reach their indemnity cap. The cost of providing monetary benefits and medical treatment are shifted to the taxpayers to pick up the tab. Injured workers don’t expect that the very act of working will forever alter their lives in a negative way. Workers’ Compensation benefits are not a charitable donation, but an entitlement based upon a compromise between workers and their employers. Unfortunately, it is clear that these benefits have been gradually eroded. We should not allow any legislation that further erodes these benefits. While the holidays will continue to bring depression and despair for some injured workers, it should not be as a result of our treatment of them afterward.

 

Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.

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Labor Report Urges Study Of A Federal Role In State Workers’ Comp Laws

Howard Berkes and Michael Grabell have been investigating the decline of workers compensation for Pro Publica and NPR.

Today’s post comes from guest author Edgar Romano, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

Howard Berkes and Michael Grabell have been shining a light on the deterioration of state workers’ compensation benefits over the last decade. A new U.S. Department of Labor report bolsters their investigative journalism, noting that those hurt on the job are at “great risk of falling into poverty” because state workers’ compensation systems are failing to provide them with adequate benefits.

The Workers Injury Litigation Group (WILG) has been fighting against this decline for 20 years, and we will continue to advocate for fair benefits for injured workers. The following is a summary of Mr. Berkes and Grabell’s recent article:

A “race to the bottom” in state workers’ compensation laws has the Labor Department calling for “exploration” of federal oversight and federal minimum benefits.

“Working people are at great risk of falling into poverty,” the agency says in a new report on changes in state workers’ comp laws. Those changes have resulted in “the failure of state workers’ compensation systems to provide [injured workers] with adequate benefits.”

In the last decade, the report notes, states across the country have enacted new laws, policies and procedures “which have limited benefits, reduced the likelihood of successful application for workers’ compensation benefits, and/or discouraged injured workers from applying for benefits.”

The 44-page report was prompted by a letter last fall from 10 prominent Democratic lawmakers, who urged Labor Department action to protect injured workers in the wake of a ProPublica/NPR series on changes in workers’ comp laws in 33 states.

The ProPublica/NPR stories featured injured workers who lost their homes, were denied surgeries or were even denied prosthetic devices recommended by their doctors.

A “race to the bottom” in state workers’ compensation laws has the Labor Department calling for “exploration” of federal oversight and federal minimum benefits.

“Working people are at great risk of falling into poverty,” the agency says in a new report on changes in state workers’ comp laws. Those changes have resulted in “the failure of state workers’ compensation systems to provide [injured workers] with adequate benefits.”

In the last decade, the report notes, states across the country have enacted new laws, policies and procedures “which have limited benefits, reduced the likelihood of successful application for workers’ compensation benefits, and/or discouraged injured workers from applying for benefits.”

The 44-page report was prompted by a letter last fall from 10 prominent Democratic lawmakers, who urged Labor Department action to protect injured workers in the wake of a ProPublica/NPR series on changes in workers’ comp laws in 33 states.

The ProPublica/NPR stories featured injured workers who lost their homes, were denied surgeries or were even denied prosthetic devices recommended by their doctors.

“The current situation warrants a significant change in approach in order to address the inadequacies of the system,” the report says.

That’s where federal intervention comes in. The Labor Department calls for “exploration” of “the establishment of standards that would trigger increased federal oversight if workers’ compensation programs fail to meet those standards.”

The agency also suggests a fresh look at reestablishing a 1972 Nixon administration commission that recommended minimum benefits and urged Congress to act if states failed to comply.

“In this critical area of the social safety net, the federal government has basically abdicated any responsibility,” says Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

Without minimum federal standards for workers’ comp benefits, Perez adds, the current system “is really putting workers who are hurt on the job on a pathway to poverty.”

Prior to the report’s release, employers, insurance companies and others involved in workers’ comp programs expressed alarm at the possibility of federal intervention.

“There has never been federal ‘oversight of state workers’ compensation programs’,” says a statement posted on the website of a group called Strategic Services on Unemployment and Workers’ Compensation, which says it represents the workers’ comp interests of the business community.

“Federal requirements imposed on a national basis would be inconsistent with the state workers’ compensation system, which has been in place for more than 100 years without federal oversight,” the group wrote.

Federal minimum benefits could ensure that injured workers across the country would not receive lesser benefits for often shorter periods of time simply because they lived in a state where lawmakers dramatically cut workers’ comp costs for employers.

“This is a system with no federal minimum standards and absolutely no federal oversight,” says Deborah Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project. “Clearly, more federal oversight is necessary to assure that that this system works for those most in need of assistance.”

No direct administrative or legislative action is proposed in the report, but Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, says he’s “drafting legislation to address many of the troubling findings laid out in this report and will be working with my colleagues to advance it in the next Congress.” 

Brown echoes Perez, saying injuries on the job shouldn’t force workers into poverty.

“But without a basic standard for workers compensation programs, that’s exactly what’s happening in too many states across the country,” Brown adds. 

Another incentive for federal involvement, the report notes, is a shift of billions of dollars in workplace injury costs to taxpayers when state workers’ comp benefits fall short and workers are forced to turn to Medicare and Social Security for treatment and lost wages.

The report lays the groundwork for federal intervention by providing an extensive section detailing the government’s role in promoting national benefits standards in both Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to 1939.

But many in the workers’ comp world consider workplace injury policy and regulation a states’ right and any prospect of a controlling federal role will likely face stiff resistance.

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Hidden Fees In North Carolina

Today’s post comes from guest author Hayes Jernigan, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

NBC Nightly News reported on December 9, 2015 that North Carolina is one of the worst states when it comes to charging hidden fees for traffic tickets. The segment reported that hidden fees in NC increased an original traffic ticket of $30 over seven fold to $218. While the State has to find funding for the many services they provide that are not profitable, NBC News reported that some of these “hidden fees” pay partly for court costs. But there might be more appropriate places to assess fines to cover court costs.

In 2014 the UNC School of Government wrote a blog based on the Court of Appeals decision in Tyll v. Berry, stating that a party held in civil contempt for failing to obey a court order can be assessed a fine, not just imprisonment.  However, the State Legislature just passed a law clarifying that when someone is found to be in civil contempt a monetary fine is not an appropriate remedy.

Seems to me that a fine is exactly the appropriate remedy when a party fails to obey a court order and that such a fine, payable to the court rather than the opposing party, could be a valuable source of funding for court-related costs. Fines for civil contempt could also alleviate some of the pressure to assess large “hidden fees” for minor traffic violations.  

Read more here: http://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/thought-you-understood-contempt-think-again/

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Nebraska Convenience Store Clerks Need More Protection from Violence

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Lincoln residents awoke to find out that a convenience store clerk was killed early on Thursday morning at a store in northwest Lincoln. Unfortunately, this type of violence is not uncommon in Lincoln, Omaharural Nebraska or anywhere else in the United States.

While the federal government has long recognized the problem of violence against convenience store clerks working overnight shifts, it has been left to the states and even cities like Milwaukee and Irving, Texas, to write laws and regulations to protect convenience store clerks from violence.

The Indiana Department of Labor did a comprehensive study of measures taken by other states and cities on how they protect convenience store clerks from violence.  Common practices included bulletproof glass and cages to protect clerks in high-risk areas, security cameras, clear views of cash registers, and having at least two clerks on dangerous overnight shifts. Barriers around cash registers in particular would be crucial in high-risk stores that are robbed regularly because robbers will often jump behind unprotected counters.

Though the city of Omaha has done some proactive policing to protect convenience stores in the recent past, neither Omaha, Lincoln nor the state of Nebraska has any legislation, regulations or ordinances in place to protect convenience store clerks from violence. I would encourage Nebraska’s state senators and city council members in Omaha, Lincoln and other Nebraska cities to put laws in place to protect convenience store workers. If you do not know who your state senator is, you can look that up here. Omaha residents can click here to find out how to contact their city council member, and Lincoln residents can click here to find out how to contact their city council member. Nebraska has legislative elections this fall, and Lincoln and Omaha have city elections next spring. I would urge voters in these races to pay attention to which candidates have a good record and ideas about workplace safety and which candidates value profits over safety.

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Despite Majority Support, Albany Legislators Fail To Consider Lavern’s Law

Lavern Wilkinson’s family was barred from seeking justice because of an archaic law.

Today’s post comes from guest author Edgar Romano, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

There was a recent lawsuit filed by a woman against a major coffee chain for injuries sustained when the lid came off of a coffee cup as it was being handed to her by the barista. According to the lawsuit, the woman sustained serious burns as a result and missed more than a month of work. The lawsuit was filed two years after the accident occurred and the injured woman maintained the only reason she pursued legal recourse was that the coffeehouse failed to respond to her repeated requests for payment of medical bills. The woman indicated she was very hesitant to file a law suit as she was opening herself up to ridicule. I was extremely saddened by her reaction, but understand her reluctance.

This case brings up a similar story from a number of years ago when another woman filed suit after she was injured by scalding hot coffee in a McDonalds drive thru when it spilled on her. This was the topic of conversation for many talking heads, citing it as the poster child for frivolous lawsuits that clog the court system and cost hard-working taxpayers billions of dollars every year. The lawsuit became fodder for countless comedians and an alarm for tort reform around the country. 

What was left out in the entire media blitz is the fact that the injured woman – Stella Liebeck – then 79 years old, asked McDonalds to pay for the medical bills totaling approximately $20,000, but they refused. It was only then that she filed the lawsuit, as she sustained third degree burns over 16 percent of her body, necessitating hospitalization for eight days, skin grafts, and horrific scarring. McDonalds admitted they knew the coffee could not be consumed immediately as it was at a scalding temperature and had to cool down. The company also admitted it was aware that more than 700 people had sustained serious injuries in the 10 years prior to the Liebeck lawsuit. It appears their coffee was kept at such a high temperature in an effort to last longer. In this case, McDonalds made a conscious decision to put savings before consumers. 

The tort reform movement has been fabricating or exaggerating facts for years to push its agenda, with the legal profession being portrayed negatively on many occasions. As an attorney, I laugh along with others at the humorous lawyer jokes I hear. But putting aside that humor, I am proud to be an advocate for the injured. I have seen first hand what can happen as a result of the negligence of others.

Last week the New York State Legislature had an opportunity to rectify an unjust, archaic law by passing a bill known as Lavern’s Law, named after a woman who died of cancer three years after she had gone to the emergency room with a cough. The hospital performed an x-ray and sent her home, but never advised her that the x-ray showed a curable cancer growth. By the time she discovered the cancer was terminal, she could not seek justice because the time to file the suit had passed.

Lavern’s Law proposed to start the statute of limitations from the time a patient discovers the malpractice, rather than from the time the medical malpractice occurred. Unfortunately for many victims of malpractice, the bill never reached the floor for a vote despite overwhelming support by a majority of both the Assembly and Senate. Those who opposed this bill felt it would cause malpractice insurance to skyrocket and put many in the medical profession out of business.

The opposition misses the point. A tort in law is a civil wrong that unfairly causes someone else to suffer loss or harm resulting in legal liability for the person who committed the act. It holds accountable the person who caused the injury. The current law for malpractice claims weakens incentives for hospitals and doctors to improve patient safety measures so these harmful incidents never happen in the first place. Lavern’s Law and other laws allowing citizens the right to jury trials actually result in a safer and healthier society.

Hopefully Lavern’s Law will be a continued topic of conversation when legislators return to Albany in January. Malpractice isn’t always discovered within what the current law considers a timely fashion. However, that doesn’t mean that injured people won’t suffer for the rest of their lives, or die, due to the negligence of others.

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Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy  Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.