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Justices consider change to lawyer-pay rules

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The Florida Supreme Court took a look at the high cost of lawyering on Wednesday.

The justices considered a change to the rules governing the state’s attorneys on how they can get paid.

Specifically at issue are “the legal needs of people who win settlements in personal injury or wrongful death cases but then find themselves faced with medical liens,” the court’s press summary said.

Such plaintiffs may get settlements or verdicts of large cash awards, then are faced with unpaid doctor or hospital bills. A lien is a legally enforceable demand for payment of a debt.

The question then is how to handle paying those bills, and who should pay to suss them out.

The proposed rule “spells out that the lawyers who represent such clients on a contingency fee basis must also handle resolution of all ordinary and straight-forward health care liens.”

Only when a lien “is so complex,” the new rule says, that a specialist can be used and the client charged an additional fee.

Questions from the justices, however, indicated a sensitivity to causing more costs to injured plaintiffs.  

“Are we going to have more specialized lawyers in medical liens?” Justice Barbara Pariente said, wondering if that was the next legal “cottage industry.”

Such “fees are well-earned but they’re huge,” she added.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga mentioned that when he handled personal injury cases, nurses were hired to review medical records under the supervision of attorneys. Their hourly bills are less than lawyers.

“At the end of the day, we have to think about the consumer,” Labarga said.

Sylvius von Saucken, an Ohio attorney who works for a “lien resolution” firm, told the justices figuring out medical bills can be especially complicated when the federal government is owed.

Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 and older, requires certain deductibles and co-pays, for instance.

“I think what you’re helping us see is it’s complex not in the legal sense but in the morass of how Medicare works,” Pariente said.

As always, the court did not set a timeline on when it will issue a decision.

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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