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December 11, 2013 — Like he had done hundreds of times before, 22-year-old air freight worker Michael Duff bent down to lift a small package that appeared to weigh only a couple of pounds. Instead, it contained a rare, high density element that weighed more than 100 pounds. He heard a loud “pop” in his back, and Duff fell to the ground in pain with a spinal injury that still bothers him more than 30 years later.
That long-ago injury ignited a passion that would eventually lead Duff to Harvard Law School, a thriving law practice as a specialist in workers’ compensation law, and to his current position as a professor at the University of Wyoming College of Law.
After his injury, Duff found there was a body of law to compensate workers for on-the-job injuries, but his claim was denied. Such claim denials, Duff learned, were not uncommon, leaving many injured workers without compensation.
The experience got him thinking about issues relating to workers’ rights. His interest in that area of law was stimulated even more by the fact that his grandfather, a coal miner, had died of black lung disease at age 52.
Duff continued working blue-collar jobs, all the while taking classes toward earning a philosophy degree, with honors, at Philadelphia’s West Chester University. He was 31 when he graduated and, motivated by his interest in workers’ rights, went on to earn his law degree at Harvard.
While the workers’ compensation laws vary from state to state, the basic premise is similar -- companies pay insurance premiums that cover injured workers’ medical expenses and pay them roughly two-thirds of their wages while they recover from their injuries. Under the same law, though, workers are unable to sue the companies for large monetary settlements.
As a law practitioner in Portland, Maine, Duff was responsible for a large number of cases in which injured workers, for a variety of legal reasons cited by companies, were denied claims for workers’ compensation payments.
“It can be surprisingly difficult for injured workers to get an attorney,” he says. “As a practicing lawyer, you accept only meritorious claims to sustain your practice. One of the reasons I left private practice was that it was extremely emotionally wearing -- dealing with personal lives of people -- and knowing that many would never be compensated for work-related injuries.”
When Duff’s father in-law, Dan Klein, a popular Laramie physician and community leader, became ill, he and his wife, Victoria, wanted to be closer to him. Then College of Law Dean Jerry Parkinson encouraged Duff to apply for an open position on the UW faculty, and he was hired in 2006, bringing with him a wealth of expertise to share with UW students. Duff teaches courses in Evidence, Torts I and Labor Law, and he still is passionate about teaching Workers’ Compensation Law.
“It’s still mind-boggling, the dangers to which workers are exposed,” he says. “Theoretically and intellectually, it's very interesting, but the passion and the personal connections I have for it are what keep me energized, and convince me that it’s an important area to stay connected to.”
Recognizing a need for a textbook that engages today’s law students, Duff has written a new book, “Workers' Compensation Law: A Context and Practice Casebook,” published by Carolina Academic Press. It draws on Duff’s real-world experiences as a former injured worker and workers’ compensation attorney; and supplements that experience with his theoretical perspective as a teacher and scholar of administrative and employment law. The book is part of the Context and Practice series edited by Michael Hunter Schwartz, dean of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law.
One reviewer notes that, “A positive aspect of the book is its freshness, meticulous attention to detail, and exploration of current issues.”
The book, dedicated to Duff’s grandfather, who died of black lung disease, has garnered widespread attention in the legal community. It led to an invitation for Duff to be a keynote speaker in fall 2015 at an event commemorating the 100th anniversary of workers’ compensation in Pennsylvania, taking him full circle to the area where he suffered a back injury as a young man.