TALLAHASSEE – A recent ruling by the Florida Supreme Court regarding
the length of workers’ compensation disability benefits awarded to the most severely
injured attempts to bring balance to the state’s system, according to Mark A.
Touby, president of Florida Workers’ Advocates.
Specifically, the state’s high court ruled in favor of the
plaintiffs in Bradley Westphal v. city of
St. Petersburg in a 5-2 vote. In that ruling, the court said stopping disability benefits
after 104 weeks for workers who are completely disabled and unable to work but
who has not yet reached “maximum medical improvement” status is
unconstitutional. The Westphal ruling extends the length of temporary benefits
for these workers to 260 weeks.
“The Florida Supreme Court restored benefits for a small
segment of injured workers – those who have been most severely injured – in
order to provide sufficient time for them to receive necessary treatment and
have time to heal,” Touby told the Florida
Record. “The ruling provides a realistic lifeline for those who truly need
Touby said the ruling, which was limited in scope, strongly
suggested that the state’s legislature should restore additional benefits to
“As the Florida Supreme Court explained, the consistent and
repeated elimination of benefits for injured workers over the years has pushed
the system past the tipping point,” Touby said.
In an April ruling in the case of Castellanos v. Next Door Co., the Florida Supreme Court said the
attorney fee schedule used in workers’ compensation cases is also
unconstitutional. However, Touby said that it is important to remember that
attorneys’ fees are only awarded after a legitimate claim has been denied by an
“Clearly, even the Florida Supreme Court recognizes that the
system needs to be revised to ensure that it strikes a good balance,” Touby
said. “For too long, injured workers have been denied the benefits they
deserve, often leaving them unable to see a doctor, visit a hospital, or
Alan Pierce, president of President of the Workers' Injury
Law and Advocacy Group (WILG) said over the more than 100 years that workers’
compensation laws have been in force in the United States, benefits levels and
durations have changed, usually via legislative action and most often in
reaction to a major issue.
“A properly designed and operating system (will achieve)
some sort of balance; fair and efficiently delivered benefits at a reasonable
cost to the employer,” Pierce said.
Over the past 20 or more years, Pierce said workers’
compensation costs and medical costs have increased, and the business community
and many governors and legislatures have become more “pro-business” than “pro-labor.”
“In many of these states, Florida among them, the easiest way
to address the cost issue has been to simply reduce if not slash benefits
rather than look at other ways that other states have addressed the out of
balance problem,” Pierce said.
As a result, Pierce said the amount of time a partially
disabled worker in Florida could collect a wage replacement to partially
compensate his loss of earnings and earning capacity was reduced to the 104-week
limit that was found unconstitutional and extended in the Westphal ruling.
“Since the legislature could not and did not act to correct
this inequity the Florida Supreme Court, correctly in our view, held that such
a limitation in face of the mandated exclusive remedy against an injured worker
bringing a tort suit against his employer was an unconstitutional deprivation
of due process, access to the courts and so forth,” Pierce said.
Pierce said the attorney fee schedule is another example of
the “pro-business” mentality, as there are no restrictions on what employers
and insurance companies can pay their specialized attorneys.
“One way to limit what a claimant might receive is to prevent
him or her from competent specialized counsel who not only can recognize when
and how his client is getting (taken advantage of), but know how to navigate
the statutes, regulations and state agency to fight for what his client is due,”
Still, Pierce said the Florida Supreme Court’s rulings are a
sign that the basic structure of workers’ compensation is sound.
“This is our constitutional checks and balances at work and
is refreshing to view,” Pierce said. “The simplistic cutting of benefit levels
rather than fixing the underlying problems will in the end prove more costly
for all involved. Westphal is evidence of that.”