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Written by: Scott Farwell
After practicing law in the field of workers’ compensation for eleven years, I decided to return to school. Not business school; not for an LMS or other decorative degree which would typically boost the resume of a partner within a larger firm. Instead, I enrolled in Johnston Community College’s Truck Driver Training program, in Smithfield, North Carolina, and it was one of the best opportunities I have experienced in my career to date. Humbly, that is saying something given my eight year military experience as an interrogator both at home and abroad, time in the public high school system as a teacher, and as a traveling Russian linguist.
First, some relevant background on the Truck Driver Training Program at Johnston Community College itself. It is the most seasoned truck driver program in the nation (and, by all accounts, the world), having been founded in 1939. Over 50,000 truck drivers have graduated from the school in its 79 years; with over 343 drivers graduating per year (on average). With night, daytime, and weekend course options, it stands significantly above so many other programs with both its stringent and respected testing requirements and behind-the-wheel drive times for its students. Recruiters were, very literally, asking for time to present the merits of their companies to the students throughout the 12 week course – detailing starting salaries for first year drivers which far exceeded dollar figures that any of the students, myself included, had seen in our initial years with other jobs.
Why am I waxing eloquent about the history and merits of this program? Two reasons (at least): First, the nation needs this profession to excel – a statement that intentionally carries multiple meanings. The nation needs truckers in order to excel as a nation; and the nation needs the truckers who drive within the profession to be better than simple bodies holding steering wheels. You can only imagine why this is true. While consumerism and community growth explode across the nation, the only means by which the latest and greatest materials and goods reach our doorsteps, is through this industry; and the only way that industry can accomplish the weighty task with which it has been burdened, is through its drivers. Perhaps more importantly (to you as you drive down the road alongside these monsters of the highway), the only way those drivers can actually reach their assigned destinations, is by being the safe, considerate and consummate professionals that each of us expect to be driving alongside us on the roads.
So I attended night and weekend classes, for 32 hours per week over the course of the 12 week program. I logged over 80 hours of drive time as a student, and ultimately obtained, not only my ‘class A’ driver’s license (CDL) but, an intense appreciation for the profession and art of driving multi-axle vehicles.
Recall, I indicated there were at least two reasons why I am splashing these pages with praise about my experience and the school I attended – first, because the profession must excel, and this school is absolutely providing the quality necessary to accomplish that. The second reason touches on why, as a workers’ compensation attorney, I would spend so much time, energy and effort to learn the hands-on level skills of driving a big-rig. In a word, ‘closing claims.’
If you are reading this, your interest suggests your familiarity with the cross road within a workers’ compensation claim where the claimant is out of work, has attained MMI, but is an extremely difficult vocational rehabilitation candidate (difficult permanent restrictions involving no lifting, limited education, limited/focused past work experience, a resides in a smaller town 50 miles from any metropolitan area). In those situations, the carrier, the insured, and the attorney all publish to the claimant an expectation that a return to work is just around the corner, even while setting reserves within the file which reflect a long and expensive out of work experience. At mediation, I assure you those elements of exposure are not lost on opposing counsel, who consistently and confidently holds out for a ‘show me the money’ moment in claims where settlement is preferred to often-times fruitless vocational rehabilitation efforts.
Enter, my knowledge of just how badly this nation wants and needs truck drivers. Have no education or work experience in trucking? No problem! Inside of a four to eight week day course, they will have you behind the wheel of a big rig. No other education or experience required. Live in a rural area? No problem! As a truck driver, your workplace travels home with you, and the 50 mile post MMI ‘area of residence’ limitation set out in N.C. Gen. Stat. §97-2(22) is met. Have a high pre-MMI average weekly wage, implicating exorbitantly high temporary partial exposure? No problem! With starting salaries north of $50,000.00, and second/third year salaries potentially exceeding $70,000.00, Defendants’ 500 week temp-partial headache is resolved. What about those pesky permanent restrictions, though? No problem. Virtually every inter or intra state trucking company is now offering no-touch/lift driver positions with vehicles using automatic transmissions. That means, by and large, even strict permanent restrictions can be met without modification. Ah yes, but what about a claimant with a criminal record? No problem! With notable exceptions having to do with drug trafficking and a select few other crimes (as per federal motor carrier safety regulations), in order to meet the growing deficit of needed drivers (greater than 50,000 as per 2017 publications on the topic), trucking companies are publicly taking the position that a driver’s past is in the past, and are hiring, nay recruiting, prior felons.
These elements impacting the more acute moments within a claim beyond the point of MMI, but prior to a claimant’s return to work do translate into literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of reduced claim exposure. I am living breathing proof of that fact. Since my attendance began in September of 2017, I have applied my knowledge and personal experience of and with the industry to resolve multiple long standing workers’ compensation claims. I have laughed across the table with claimants during opening statements at mediation (much to the chagrin of opposing counsel) about how everyone at the table knows their inactive CDL can be renewed, and their return to work into a no-touch/no-lift driver position is immediately assured; I have gained the respect and cooperation of pro se claimants who were non-communicative prior to my involvement, but who share ‘war-stories’ of their driving past once they realize I, too, carry my class-A license; I have rebutted the lay misstatements and misunderstandings of opposing counsel regarding the mechanics of a big-rig. In sum, I have closed claims.
While it may not always be the answer to closing a difficult claim, I am certain the need for truck drivers, in combination with the industry’s importance to the nation and our daily lives, causes it to be an excellent avenue to consider when faced with a difficult return to work scenario.