Workers’ Compensation: Spotlight Practice Area

Russ Elder, workers' comp spotlightInterview with Russell Elder, Shareholder—

Russell Elder has been a practicing attorney for 23 years. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from Western Michigan University in 1988 and then attended Thomas M. Cooley Law School where, in 1992, he received his Juris Doctorate. Russell manages HVH’s Workers’ Compensation practice group as well as being part of the firm’s insurance defense team. Russell has experience representing employers, insurance companies and third party administrators in the defense of complex workers’ compensation matters. He has a no-nonsense approach with extensive experience in effectively handling and litigating all aspects of a case.

Mr. Elder has been a guest speaker for the Michigan Risk and Insurance Managers Annual Meeting. He is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan and was admitted in 1992. He joined Hewson & Van Hellemont, P.C. in 2015.

How did you become interested in workers’ compensation? What path brought you here?

During law school, I had the opportunity to clerk for a plaintiff’s firm that handled general plaintiff’s work that included workers’ compensation claims. During my time there I gained my initial experience in the area of workers’ compensation law. I quickly determined that my personality was better suited to represent employers than the claimants filing workers’ compensation claims. Following law school, I began my legal career, in 1992, with the law firm of Zamplas, Nystrom, Johnson & Cavanaugh and remained there through May 1995. I primarily focused on the defense of Workers’ Compensation cases and on occasion, I also was involved with the defense of various Circuit Court matters.

In June 1995, Attorney Nystrom and I moved the Workers’ Compensation practice, forming a new firm where I continued representing employers in the defense of Worker’s Disability Compensation matters.

In 1997, I joined Kopka, Pinkus & Dolin, a firm with a national presence, to manage their Workers’ Compensation Defense practice in Michigan. I remained with the Kopka firm as a partner until December 31, 2002.

At the beginning of 2003 I took the opportunity to transition my practice and clients to a new firm to spearhead their insurance defense practice. I moved my Workers’ Compensation Defense practice to Couzens, Lansky, Fealk, Ellis, Roeder & Lazar P.C. I remained there for twelve and a half years, through June 2015.

During my tenure with Couzens, I had the opportunity to work as a consultant for a major automotive supplier. Under the direction and supervision of the company claims manager, I was responsible for supervising the output of all attorneys handling litigated workers’ compensation matters throughout the United States, including Michigan. In this capacity, I ensured cases were handled properly, that action plans were appropriate, that attorneys were providing appropriate updates and moving matters forward, that liability was properly evaluated and that any settlements or decisions to proceed to trial were warranted based on the facts of each matter. I also participated in national case reviews within the company, the third party administrator, adjusters and the attorneys handling the cases. Because my main focus has been on the defense of workers’ compensation claims I have developed a client base that has afforded me the opportunity to defend employers throughout the entire State of Michigan.

What is Workers’ Compensation?

In Michigan, in most situations, employees are entitled to pursue workers’ disability compensation benefits against their employer if they suffer an injury or aggravation, physical or mental that can be linked to their employment and results in an effect to their wage earning capacity. This is known as the exclusive remedy provision. In essence, employees in Michigan are guaranteed, via statute, the right to workers’ disability compensation benefits for injuries or aggravations to a condition that can be linked to their employment. In exchange for this absolute benefit and right, the employees forfeit their right, under most circumstances, to pursue other civil actions against the employer. On one hand, Michigan employers that are subject to the Act are obligated to pay employees workers’ disability compensation benefits, and on the other hand, in exchange for their obligation to pay workers’ disability compensation benefits, they gain protection from other associated potential civil actions.

Although benefits payable to employees for work related injuries covered under the Act can be quite extensive, most claims usually involve the payment of lost wages and all medical expenses associated with the work-related injury.

Many workers’ disability compensation claims are, in fact, legitimate and end up being paid by the employers. However, there are those questionable claims, and by the time something reaches my desk there is usually something wrong with the claim or there are red flags that have caused the employer or adjuster to question the legitimacy of the claim. From a defense standpoint, the most frequent issues addressed include: was there an injury or aggravation at all; are there relevant preexisting conditions; is there any evidence of malingering or fraud; is the medical condition related to a work injury or work in general; does the work injury or condition affect the employee’s ability to work or earn his/her regular wage and if so, to what degree; do they have a residual wage earning capacity and are there any other available defenses that will help minimize any potential exposure.

What are you known for professionally? What do you have a knack for?

I am known for always being professional, prepared and aggressive, not rolling over and not just going through the motions. I enjoy working closely with my clients to ensure that claims are being handled in the manner that they desire. I welcome input and enjoy working as a team to aggressively defend litigated claims to ensure we take all steps necessary to minimize any exposure. I take great pride in my work, and I believe that my clients find my representation to always be professional, responsive, aggressive and thorough. My goal is to turn over every stone to ensure nothing is missed. My clients find that I am always prepared and that I focus on every detail of a case. I feel I have a great knack for not only looking at the big picture, but also for focusing on small issues, details or facts that might affect the overall case. At the end of the day, when decisions are being made regarding proceeding to trial or settling a case, and if settling for what figure, my clients are confident that their cases have been defended properly, that the information they are basing their decisions on is accurate and that all possible activities have taken place to put them in the best possible position.

What’s the one problem you solve best for your clients? What do your ideal clients say about you?

I am aggressive, hardworking, thorough, always available to discuss issues, strategic and responsive. No surprises for my clients. I tend to turn over every stone and take all appropriate actions to place my clients in the best position based on the facts of each case. My thoroughness and preparation allows me to provide detailed recommendations and accurate liability analysis resulting in my clients having confidence when it comes to making decisions regarding case activity, settlement versus proceeding to trial and other such important case decisions.

What are you most passionate about professionally? What most excites you about your work and the contribution you can make?

Digging into a case to prepare for trial or a deposition, matching wits with opposing counsel and never being unprepared. In addition to the actual work, I enjoy my clients, the relationships we have built and the team approach and collaboration that we have on each case.

 

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