Miami-Dade judge declares Florida Workers’ Comp law unconstitutional

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Florida’s workers’ compensation law is unconstitutional, according to a Miami-Dade judge on Wednesday, striking a severe blow to a law already under attack.

The Bradenton Herald reports that Circuit Judge Jorge Cueto declared Florida’s long-disputed workers’ compensation law unconstitutional; adding that after several years where state legislatures diminished medical care and wage-loss benefits for incapacitated workers, the statute now violates “fundamental” rights of employees.

The case is based on a government office worker in Miami-Dade County who claims the nearly 80-year-old law forces injured workers into Florida’s legal system, which is so flawed it cannot provide adequate medical care or dollars to supplant lost wages.

Under state law, workers are given no choice but to turn to the workers’ comp system to seek benefits under. With only few exceptions, workers cannot sue employers.

“The benefits in the act have been so decimated,” says Cueto’s decision, “that it no longer provides a reasonable alternative” to filing suit in civil court.

The ruling comes at a critical time for Florida’s blue-collar and agricultural workers. Lawmakers and business leaders claim that rising workers’ compensation premiums threaten to disrupt economic growth; worker advocates argue the state allows widespread insurance fraud, while responding to high premiums by penalizing workers.

Workers’ comp reform is a years-long controversy, becoming more prominent as worker rights attorneys ask judges as far as the Florida Supreme Court, to strike down  the state law permanently.

Cueto’s ruling centers on an accounting clerk who, on Jan. 27, 2012, tripped in a walkway because a co-worker left boxes around the floor. Elsa Padgett, who had already approached retirement age, fell on her hip, sustaining serious shoulder damage as well.

After shoulder replacement surgery, Padgett continued to suffer pain, which eventually forced her to retire.

“The free ride for injuring workers on the job is over,” said Miami attorney Mark Zientz, one of Padgett’s lawyers. “The workers’ comp law has been eviscerated and now we have a judge who essentially admitted that.”

If the ruling is appealed, Cueto’s order joins a minimum of two other cases challenging the constitutionality of parts of the state workers’ compensation statute.

The Florida Supreme Court is already considering an appeal filed by Bradley Westphal, a St. Petersburg firefighter with severe and disabling back injuries incurred in 2009. After temporary wage-loss benefits had expired, Westphal was left with no income.

Doctors through his insurance carrier said he could not seek work, and the insurance carrier refused to provide benefits until doctors confirmed he would no longer improve medically.

“This system of redress does not comport with any notion of natural justice, and its result is repugnant to fundamental fairness, because it relegates a severely injured worker to a legal twilight zone of economic and familial ruin,” said the February 2013 opinion from a three-judge Tallahassee appeals court striking down the statute.

Later, the full court restored the law, but the case is now before the state’s highest court.

Florida lawmakers amended state law in 1968, making the workers’ comp system the “exclusive” legal remedy when employees are injured on the job. At that time, the law was far more generous, requiring employers to pay all medical bills and considerably better benefits to workers who lost either all or part of their ability to work.

However, the Legislature made changes in 1990, 1993 and 2003 removing large portions of injured workers’ benefits. Lawmakers justified the reductions as necessary to keep Florida competitive with other states, to retain or lure business.

In 1993, and then a decade later, lawmakers reduced benefits after industry complaints that workers’ compensation insurance in Florida were among the highest premiums in the country.

In an Aug. 4 court plea, the Florida Attorney General’s Office contends that lawmakers had a “compelling need (to) reform” the workers’ comp system as “Florida suffered from some of the highest insurance costs in the country, and premiums only continued to increase.”

Since revisions to the law made in 2003, premiums dropped 56 percent, Herald reporter Carol Marbin Miller notes. Workers’ compensation laws traditionally limit what employees receive in medical care or reimbursement for lost wages, the Attorney General’s Office plea said. In return, workers do not have to prove in court that bosses were at fault.

Attorney General Pam Bondi chose not to intervene directly Cueto’s case, but her office defended the statute, maintaining, “While some individual workers may be worse off with workers’ compensation in a particular instance, others benefit greatly.”

In his order, Cueto said lawmakers had violated their side of the “trade” with workers — where employees relinquish the right to sue in civil court after an injury, but then get fast, efficient and no-fault justice. Business interests began carving up the safety net in place in 1968, when employers reached the bargain.

“The purpose of a workers’ compensation act is not for it to be used as a weapon in an economic civil war,” Cueto concluded. “Its purpose is to provide adequate compensation for on-the-job injuries in place” of a worker’s ability to sue in civil court.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.