It happens every day in America. A scaffold collapses at a construction site, a worker falls from an unprotected walkway, a car hits a highway worker, or there’s an explosion at an industrial plant, and a worker is seriously injured. After he or she has stabilized in the hospital — or has passed away — one of the ranking union members stops by to see the family and gives them a name of a lawyer to call to bring the responsible parties to justice and take care of the family’s financial injuries. Sometimes this recommendation is made with the best of intentions, sometimes not.
Does the worker or their family have to call that lawyer? In a word, no.
There are four main instances in which a unionized work needs a lawyer and the union recommends a lawyer:
- When the union member thinks the employer is breaching their union contract;
- When the union member needs a non-work-related legal service, like preparing a divorce or filing a bankruptcy;
- When the union member is hurt, and needs a workers’ compensation or personal injury lawyer;
- When the union member feels they have been discriminated against, and so needs a discrimination lawyer.
In the first case, most union agreements require the union to assist the union member throughout the grievance process, including and through arbitration. The union has what is known as a “duty of fair representation” to the member, and as part of that duty has to assist the member with their claims against the employer unless the union genuinely believes the claim lacks merit. Thus, for the bulk of grievances against the employer over the union agreement, the union will appoint an attorney for the member to use in the arbitration. Although members often can hire their own attorney, it usually is not worth it to do so unless the union attorney truly appears to be mishandling the case.
In the second case, many unions has “prepaid legal services” plans that operate somewhat like dental insurance. For a fee upfront (either monthly or annually), the union member is given access to attorneys who have agreed to represent union members in particular matters. These matters typically involve family law, like adoptions or divorces, bankruptcies, or criminal defense of misdemeanors. In these situations, the union member is free to choose their own personal attorney (and can often get the union to pay for some of that work by the attorney), but the better deal — assuming the lawyer is competent and sufficiently motivated — is to stick with the prepaid attorney, because there usually won’t be any additional fees.
In the third case, although some prepaid legal plans will have a preferred attorney who has agreed to review all of the cases, the union member is under no duty to choose a particular lawyer. When a union member is injured on the job, their workers’ compensation or personal injury claim is their claim, not the union’s, and they can hire whomever they please. Typically, workers’ compensation and personal injury lawyers work off of a contingent fee, where the lawyer is paid entirely out of the settlement or award, and so there’s no money to be paid in that instance, either.
As plaintiff’s lawyers who represent injured workers, we want to tell you the secret of finding a good injury lawyer: go talk to several them, see how you get along with them, and choose the one you trust and are most comfortable with. There are a lot of great trial lawyers around, particularly in the larger cities. The most important part is that you figure out for yourself what they’re like in person and if you have confidence in their abilities and their judgment — if you don’t, you’re going to end up lying awake at night, doubting your case, doubting your lawyer’s decisions, and thinking about what else you could do. Don’t get yourself in that situation, spend some time research and talking to firms and follow your instincts.
In the fourth case, the same lawyers who represent unions sometimes also represent employees in individual discrimination claims, and so union supervisors and leaders will often recommend members use those same law firms. That isn’t necessarily a problem or a conflict of interest. It is, however, another situation in which the worker is entitled to reach out to other potential employment discrimination lawyers until you find one you’re comfortable with.
For over fifty years, The Beasley Firm has set the standard for representing injured persons nationwide. If you or a loved one have been injured at work, contact us using this form or by calling 1-(888) 823-5291 for a free, confidential consultation.