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Florida Supreme Court strikes down another part of worker’s comp law

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The state’s Supreme Court on Thursday delivered another blow to Florida’s workers’ compensation law.

In a 5-2 decision, the court ruled unconstitutional part of the law that “cuts off disability benefits … to a worker who is totally disabled and incapable of working but who has not yet reached maximum medical improvement,” or in other words, the person cannot heal any further.

That cutoff “is unconstitutional … as a denial of the right of access to courts,” said the opinion by Justice Barbara Pariente.

That’s because “it deprives an injured worker of disability benefits under these circumstances for an indefinite amount of time — thereby creating a system of redress that no longer functions as a reasonable alternative to tort litigation,” it added.

Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented, saying they reject the argument that a limit in law “on the period of eligibility for temporary total disability benefits violates the right of access to courts.”

Thursday’s decision in Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg amounted to the second in a one-two punch against the state worker’s comp regime, mandated to pay workers who get hurt on the job.

In April, the court also struck down the law’s legal fee schedule as unconstitutional, saying it was a violation of due process. That decision also was authored by Pariente.

Soon after, state insurance regulators were hit with a 17-percent rate hike request from insurers in the cost of workers’ comp to employers. An umbrella organization making the request directly attributed the increase to the Court’s decision in Castellanos v. Next Door Company.

The Westphal case involves a dispute over disability benefits for an injured St. Pete firefighter. Bradley Westphal, then 53, severely hurt his back lifting heavy furniture as he fought a December 2009 fire, records show. Arguments were held nearly two years ago.

The issue was over “the severely injured worker who can no longer receive temporary total disability benefits, but who is not yet eligible for permanent total disability benefits, (being) cut off from compensation after 104 weeks,” or almost two years, the opinion said.

That essentially forces an injured worker into a legal twilight zone.

“(F) or injured workers like Westphal who are not yet legally entitled to assert a claim for permanent total disability benefits at the conclusion of 104 weeks of temporary total disability benefits, the workers’ compensation law lacks adequate and sufficient safeguards and cannot be said to continue functioning … as a reasonable alternative to tort litigation,” Pariente wrote.

Florida’s worker’s comp system has long been caught in a tug-of-war between labor and business interests.

Opponents have criticized the 2003 changes put in place by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature, saying they were draconian and favored employers at the cost of injured employees. Companies said the new system cut costs, which helps businesses grow jobs. And the changes also were intended to reduce lawsuits over benefits.

Pariente wrote that the decision “revived” a previous section of law, allowing “temporary total disability benefits not to exceed 260 weeks — five years of eligibility rather than only two years.”

Justice R. Fred Lewis concurred, but said reviving the old part of the law “simply moves the goal posts without eliminating the unconstitutional statutory gap that will still persist for those who remain totally — but not permanently — disabled after 360 weeks,” or nearly seven years.

The majority decision “leaves Florida workers in an only marginally better position than they were” before, he added. The state’s worker’s comp system is still “fundamentally unconstitutional and in need of legislative — not judicial — reform.”

Canady, while disagreeing that Westphal was wrongly denied access to the courts, partly agreed.

The “decision to substantially increase weekly compensation for temporary total disability and to reduce the number of weeks that such benefits are paid is a trade-off that is a matter of policy within the province of the Legislature,” Canady wrote in his dissent.

“The Legislature — rather than this Court — has the institutional competence and authority to make such policy judgments.”

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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