- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - For the second time this year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that part of the rules put in place for injured workers by the Legislature violated their constitutional rights.

A divided court on Thursday struck down a law that limits payments to injured workers to two years, ordering instead that the payments should last five years.

The 5-2 decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by an injured St. Petersburg firefighter. Bradley Westphal, who badly hurt his back while battling a fire, was no longer eligible for payments because he wasn’t permanently disabled, yet his doctors told him he couldn’t work.

“The statute cuts off a severely injured worker from disability benefits at a critical time, when the worker cannot return to work and is totally disabled but the worker’s doctors - chosen by the employer - deem that the worker may still continue to medically improve,” wrote Justice Barbara Pariente for the majority.

The decision could have a big impact on Florida’s businesses, which pay for workers’ compensation insurance to cover injured workers. Business groups quickly criticized the ruling since it could lead to higher insurance premiums.

The way the system is supposed to work is that workers are guaranteed a certain amount of help in exchange for limits on their ability to sue their employers. But twice in the last 25 years the Legislature has enacted sweeping changes to the system to address complaints from Florida businesses about rising insurance premiums.

In late April the Florida Supreme Court struck down another part of the changes, a law limiting lawyer fees in workers’ compensation cases. In that ruling, justices said the $1.53 hourly rate a lawyer was paid to help an injured worker was “absurdly low.” The court said fee limits are unconstitutional because they resulted in a system where people can’t find lawyers to represent them at unreasonably low rates.

Justice Fred Lewis, in a concurring opinion, wrote that it’s time for the Legislature to come up with major changes to what he called a “fundamentally unconstitutional” system.

“Florida needs a valid workers’ compensation program, but the charade is over,” Lewis wrote. “Enough is enough, and Florida workers deserve better.”

But Justice Charles Canady, who dissented in the ruling, argued that it was the job of state legislators to figure out the right policy and noted that they had made changes in the amounts paid to workers when they put on the weekly limit.

So far, legislative leaders have been reluctant to tackle the issue, preferring to wait until the 2017 session that starts next March. Many of them are already out campaigning for re-election. But insurance rates could skyrocket before then. Florida regulators have already been asked to approve a 17.1 percent rate hike in insurance premiums to cover the April ruling.

“A legislative solution for both cases will help bring certainty back to Florida’s job creators and injured workers that Florida’s workers’ comp system is working,” said Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce said in a statement.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide