Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Reminiscence and Challenge

I attended the Florida Worker's Compensation Institute Hall of Fame last Friday. It was an incredible gathering. I was privileged to sit between Richard Sicking and Al Frierson, clearly the deans of Florida Worker's Compensation. Each has been practicing more than 50 years. That is not as amazing as the fact that they are each still involved in workers' compensation. There were several other professionals present with over 40 years experience. 

Workers' compensation began in Florida in 1935. When Richard and Al started in this business, workers' compensation was less than 30 years old. They were not there at the beginning, but they knew the people that remembered the beginning. They possess a perspective that most of us lack. 

This year marked the induction of new members. The opportunity to bear witness to the honoring of Elwyn Akins, Claude Revels and Tom Koval was heartwarming. The Hall includes two categories of members, the active professionals and then a "Legends" division for the retired or deceased leaders of this industry. The Hall essentially recognizes individuals who have made a significant contribution to the industry through a lifetime of dedication and effort. Steven Rissman is the leader of the Hall of Fame and the moderator for each annual gathering. 

Tom Koval is a leader for workers' compensation both at FCCI Insurance in Sarasota and in the halls of the legislature. He has been a litigator, spending much of his time on the east coast, and Chair of the workers' compensation section. He has been involved with legislative change for decades.

Claude Revels recently retired from JM Family in Jacksonville. He has been a fixture of workers' compensation, advocating for employers, self-insureds, as well as legislative and regulatory improvements for thirty years. He has served on more committees and board than I could list. 

The Legend induction this year was for the Honorable Elwyn Akins. Judge Akins passed in 2009.  A "Legend" at the dinner told me that his memorial service began and ended with Elvis singing Dixie. He initially served Florida as a county court judge, and then became the workers' compensation judge (by various names, such as Judge and Deputy Commissioner) in what was then District B, now referred to as Gainesville District. 

Judge Akins was based in Trenton, Florida. He is said to be the last judge of compensation claims to regularly ride a circuit. Today there are a few judges who schedule periodic trial days in various counties away from the district office in which they serve. But Judge Akins had specific days of the week in specific surrounding counties.

When Judge Akins left the bench in 1992, Judge Ohlman was appointed. I had many cases before Judge Ohlman in Gainesville over the years. I never had the opportunity to appear before Judge Akins in Gainesville, or District B. However during the transition between judges in Jacksonville I had the opportunity to appear before him as a pro hac vice (temporary) judge.

Judge Akins was "folksy." All who reminisced about him Friday night remembered his keen intelligence, and no-nonsense approach to the adjudication process. More heartwarming, though, was the repeated iteration of statements like "judge Akins was like a father to me," from various Hall of Fame members. Jack Langdon has arranged to have his Hall of Fame plaque displayed in the Gainesville District office for posterity. 

I remember him as "folksy," but more so I recall him being decisive. In an era where "take it under advisement" was a norm, and we sometimes waited years for a JCC decision, Judge Akins often ruled from the bench. I recall an unrelated punchline which reminds me of him, "perhaps in error, but never in doubt." He knew his decision and was not afraid to state it. You might not like the outcome, but you knew the outcome and you could move to the next task. Predictability and transparency were never an issue in my experiences with Judge Akins.

To appreciate the magnitude of such compliments, one needs to understand the Hall of Fame this is an incredible collection of individuals. Each has been dedicated to Worker's Compensation on a professional, intellectual, and even academic level. These are the human beings upon who's backs Worker's Compensation has survived and thrived over the last 40 years or more. 

Looking around the table, I saw Richard Sicking, Claude Revels, Bill Douglas, Steve Rosen, Joe Keene, Tom Koval, Karen Gilmartin, Glen Weiland, Rosemary Eure, Bob O'Halloran, Mary Ann Stiles, John Lazzara, Jack Langdon, David Parrish, Jim McConnaughhay, Steven Rissman, Lynn Houser, Ramon Malca, George Kagan, Marc Salm, and Al Frierson. I probably missed someone, but for an old guy my memory is pretty good. 

The stories that were told were amazing. The tragedy is that they were not recorded or memorialized. Through the Legends division, the Hall has recognized so many of the people that led this industry since 1935, when workers' compensation came to Florida. Names like Baxter Swing and Betty Miller; George Dubriel and Jack Miller. The Florida industry owes much to these people, and too many of their stories, recollections and reminiscences are already lost. 

It struck me that several of the active Hall members were not present this year. One was on a glorious cruise and another was in South America. Those are great reasons. A few others could not make it due to illness, or difficulty with travel. It strikes me that in time this group of august individuals, will evolve from a group of seasoned practitioners surrounding me to a group of youngsters, and I will be (eventually, hopefully) the 50 year practitioner in the room. Perhaps I will be the only one that remembers the stories told by the assemblage listed above. 

I hope that is not true. I hope that these individuals will find the time in their lives this year to record some of these stories for the ages. I have one book on Florida workers' compensation, and have been promised another. The second, it appears is out of print and much coveted. We have not done a great job of recording our history. Who will document our history. Who will write down the story of how wage loss really came to pass in 1979, or the social security PTD standard in 2004? Who will remember the 2003 session, Fair Care, 50A and the rest?

We live in an age of inexpensive and simplistic data retention. Even one of the "old folks" could dictate a story or two. My challenge to the Hall of Fame in 2016 is that each member write two single-page stories about their own early days of workers' compensation. I hope they can explain a victory or two, and perhaps admit to a failure. Hopefully, we can record and preserve some volume of history that I can pass on to the next generation when I am the senior member in the dinner one day many years from now. Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. 

I am proud of the effort of the Hall to recognize the pioneers and leaders. I do not know if other states have such a recognition, but recommend it to all. These are the people that have been our past and upon whose foundation our future in this industry will be built. We should know them, recognize them and appreciate their contributions. 

Thanks to the WCI, the Florida leaders are known and recognized. I challenge other states to do the same. Celebrate them and their history, while you have the chance. 

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