A stunning investigative report published by the Los Angeles Times provides several examples of Los Angeles police officers and fire fighters filing and recovering what it claims are exaggerated or outright fake “skin and contents” workers compensation claims costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
In one example, the Times reports that former LAPD Officer Jonathan Hall ended his career the way many veteran officers do these days, claiming job-related injuries across most of his body. Hall filed claims saying he’d injured his knees, hips, heart (high blood pressure), back, right shoulder – even his right middle finger.
The ailments had existed for months, in some cases years, and had not previously prevented him from working, Hall said in a recent interview. But he was burned out, the target of an internal affairs investigation and desperate to avoid going back to the station. Hall’s timing raised suspicion, and he was soon videotaped leading scuba dives and lifting heavy equipment despite the alleged injuries.
But, according to the Los Angeles Times, he is far from alone in asserting that so many parts of his body had been injured on the job.
In fact, claims involving at least five injured body parts have become by far the most common in California, according to a Times data analysis of millions of workers’ compensation cases spanning nearly three decades. In the past, injuries to a single body part – a knee, a shoulder, the lower back – were the most prevalent, the data show.
The strategy is common among veteran cops and firefighters who get up to a year off at their full salary, tax free, for each job-related injury their doctor diagnoses. Their employers also pay the associated medical bills and often a hefty cash settlement based on the extent and severity of the injuries.
Multiple lawyers and patients involved with the workers’ compensation system described a similar process: An officer nearing the end of his career goes to an attorney’s office complaining about a sore shoulder and is asked how his knees feel, if his back aches or if he is under a lot of stress. He is then referred to a doctor with whom the attorney has a long-standing relationship.
After a few decades on the job, it’s not hard for a client to fill out what industry insiders call a “skin and contents” case, attorney Paul Young said. Young is an attorney who was a partner at two high-profile Los Angeles-area law firms that represent cops and firefighters.
Thousands of such claims have been filed by participants in Los Angeles’ controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan – or DROP, as it’s known – which allows veteran cops and firefighters to collect their salaries and pensions simultaneously for the last five years of their careers.
A Times investigation in February found that nearly half of the people who have joined the program since its inception in 2002 subsequently went out on injury leave – at nearly twice their normal pay – typically for bad backs, sore knees and other injuries that afflict aging bodies regardless of profession.
As an example, the Times reports that former Los Angeles Fire Capt. John Kitchens was paid more than $1.5 million while in DROP – $645,000 of that in extra pension payments – despite missing more than a year and a half on injury and sick leave, city payroll records show.
Despite his health issues, Kitchens was able to travel to the Galapagos Islands in January 2013 to dive with hammerhead sharks, according to his Facebook page. In the comments beneath a photo of him in scuba gear on a boat at Gordon Rocks – a bucket-list destination for many divers – his only complaint was that the photos he took of the massive sharks underwater turned out blurry.
There’s nothing unusual about what he did, Hall said, and he knows many other officers who have engaged in more strenuous physical activity while out with injuries.
He’s willing to speak out about the workers’ compensation abuse because he has nothing left to lose, Hall said. Other cops and firefighters who have been through the system won’t talk, he said, because doing so would “screw over a lot of their friends. It’s corrupt, and a lot of people do it.”