This year I am fortunate to celebrate my 32nd year as a licensed attorney. Being a litigation attorney was a dream that I had ever since I was a little boy. It was either that or going into construction like my father, who was a union carpentry contractor and general contractor. Given that initial vocational dilemma, it made perfect sense that when I chose my first law clerk job it was with a small 5 attorney firm that represented union construction workers who suffered injuries on the job. That was back in 1981. And now, 32 years later, I am proud to be the managing partner of the law firm that that little firm grew into: the largest personal injury and workers’ compensation law firm in Illinois with 37 lawyers and over 90 employees in total: GWC.
In my years, I’ve seen many changes in the law. Some for the good, but many for the bad. Specifically, I have seen the laws related to compensating construction workers for on the job injuries get tougher and tougher and tougher. As a result, it is harder and harder for these men and woman to protect themselves and their families from financial ruin when they suffer disabling injuries. Unfortunately, blue collar workers have suffered the ill-effects of political warfare where unions, workers’ rights, injury awards, and the various laws that protect each of them are under attack constantly by some of our more conservative political representatives and courts. We have seen caps on damage awards get enacted and then overturned as unconstitutional by our Supreme Court. We have seen a 90 year old construction safety statute, the Structural Work Act, get decimated in the first month of a Republican controlled House, Senate and Governorship in the early 1990s, with no substituting legislation ever passed or even contemplated.
In many respects, our appellate courts have not exactly helped to formulate a consistent line a case law that can be used to protect injured workers either. While there are many fine jurists who have written a number of solid opinions that clearly set forth the requirements for injured workers to sustain their claims against negligent contractors, there are also many opposing opinions which create much uncertainty and inconsistency in our state. It makes no sense that a worker injured in Cook County has a viable claim against a negligent contractor, yet in a collar County the appellate courts interpret workers’ rights differently and no such claim exists for the same exact set of facts.
Despite the laws, the jurists, the economy and the political climate of the year, GWC has continued to be a driving force behind workers’ rights and protections in and out of Court. Over the last 30+ years, GWC has represented workers from every construction trade, injured in every way imaginable. Ironworkers being paralyzed or killed falling off of steel decks due to a lack of a proper fall protection plan, Electricians suffering burns in explosions while servicing faulty switch gears, trenches collapsing on laborers, Carpenters at elevation not protected from falls, and so many more. We’ve seen buildings, bridges and canopies collapse upon and below workers. We’ve seen how individual and family lives are forever changed. We’ve seen companies ignore safety then try to blame the injured worker for what they failed to do. And we have seen the tragedy that forever changes people’s lives when they, or their loved ones, suffer disabling injuries or death.
Unfortunately, we’ve also seen other injury lawyers underestimate the complexity of these cases and handle them badly. Complex safety standards. Complex engineering. Complex contractual relationships and roles. Complex and changing law. A lack of understanding of how the hierarchy of construction authority on a project can develop into theories of liability, and how contract documents can have a critical impact on the same. Construction litigation is not for the “jack of all trades” injury lawyer. It is for the experienced, seasoned professional, that has the financial resources to battle with experienced construction negligence defense lawyers and their well-paid expert witnesses.
At GWC, trying construction negligence cases is not simply another variety of case that we handle, it’s our way of life. I take great pride and satisfaction in knowing that our lawyers have made the lives of construction workers safer because of the new safety measures taken by many contractors whose negligence resulted in a tragic injury or death. It is very rewarding to know that we have been instrumental if molding the case law so that families of disabled and killed workers can recover full compensation when they suffer a catastrophic loss. And it is most gratifying when we reflect on the many families whose financial well-being have been saved and enhanced through the successes that we have achieved for so many clients.
As Illinois’ largest personal injury and workers compensation law firm, I love going to work on behalf of our many clients every day! And with my two oldest children joining the firm in 2014 as new lawyers, we will be fighting the fight against Illinois’ largest contractors and insurance carriers for generations to come.
Louis C. Cairo