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 it.”
Touby said the ruling, which was limited in scope, strongly suggested that the state’s legislature should restore additional benefits to disabled workers.
“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 insurance provider.
“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 receive treatment.”
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,” Pierce said.
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.”