Florida Workers Compensation: Change in the wind?

Florida Workers CompensationThe Florida workers compensation law was declared unconstitutional by a Miami circuit court judge in a ruling that has the potential to send shock waves through the system. On August 13, Judge Jorge E. Cuelo of the 11th judicial circuit declared that the current law, as it has been amended several times, does not provide adequate protection for Florida workers.

The opinion declares that the statute, as it currently exists, is unconstitutional because it violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the right to Trial by Jury, the Florida constitution, and the right to be Rewarded for Industry under the Florida constitution.


What The Florida Workers Compensation Ruling Says

The opinion states that injured workers’ rights to compensation have been eroded “in stages” over the years to the point of being unconstitutional. It also states that the Florida workers compensation act may have been sufficient up until 1968 as a reasonable remedy in lieu of a tort action, but the amendments to the act, and subsequent changes in Florida tort law have eliminated that sufficiency. The exclusive remedy provision of the Florida workers compensation law is “the most intrusive way to compensate citizens for injuries on the job by taking away access to courts and removing the inviolate right to trial by jury.” (quoting from Judge Cuelo’s opinion)

The opinion also quotes from Martinez v. Scanlon a 1991 Florida Supreme Court case that states: “As long as the Act continues to provide full medical care and some compensation for total or partial disability, it remains constitutional.” It would follow that when those benefits are eliminated, it becomes unconstitutional.

Because the Act does not provide a reasonable adequate alternative to tort litigation, it should not remain the exclusive remedy of injured workers. Further, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1917 on N. Y. Central Railroad v. White, ( the very first case affirming the use of workers compensation systems )that the benefits of the replacement must be significant. Judge Cuelo’s opinion states that the current system does not meet this standard.


A Little Background On Florida Workers Compensation

In the early 1900’s, states in the industrialized north such as New York and New Jersey were beginning to see a need for a system to compensate workers injured on the job. At the time, the only remedy available to them was a lawsuit through the traditional court system. The solution was implementing a system whereby workers gave up the right to sue their employers in exchange for assurance that medical expenses and lost wages would be taken care of by this new system. It was supposed to streamline the process of Florida workers compensation, take care of the injured workers and give the employers some certainty in their costs. They did not have to worry about defending lawsuits and potential settlements; they only had to pay their Florida workers compensation premiums.

Florida came a little later to the concept of compensating workers injured on the job. Part of this was because of the lower population, and the fact that Florida was very much an agricultural business state. There were orange groves and tobacco farms, some logging and vegetable farms. There was little manufacturing, and it wasn’t until 1935 that a workers compensation law was implemented. At this time, workers and businesses were moving into the Sunshine State, and the need for the system became apparent.

The Florida workers compensation law was amended several times over the years, but the most significant amendments were the 1970 amendment that repealed the right of employers and employees to opt out of the system. If that was done, then the remedy was the usual lawsuit. No replacement of these rights was established, thereby severely limiting the avenue for a remedy. The other significant change was in the 2003 amendment, which eliminated any compensation for partial permanent disabilities resulting in wage loss. It also limited total permanent disability payments to age 75 or after 5 years of payment. Workers must make co-payments after the maximum medical costs allowable are reached, and if they cannot afford their share, they get no medical care at all.

These amendments were passed under pressure from business lobbies, who claimed the insurance premiums were too high, (second in the nation to California) and insurance company lobbies who claimed the cost of medical care was too high. The insurance companies were threatening to stop writing coverage, or renewing policies and placing restrictions on the policies. It appeared to be a crisis and the legislature responded by enacting the amendments that curtailed workers’ benefits.


Regarding Florida Workers Compensation, What Does This Mean For Me?

Just yet, it is a bit early to be jumping for joy over this decision in favor of injured workers. Although the Attorney General did not participate in the case as a party to defend the constitutionality of the statute, it is a certainty that the decision will be appealed to the next highest court. The Attorney General’s office did file a memorandum in the case citing procedural and jurisdictional issues, and made the argument that the statute is constitutional.

The decision raises all sorts of questions – what will happen to claims currently in process? What about claims that have already been adjudicated? Will they be revisited? What might take the place of the current system if this ruling is upheld? There are certainly more questions than answers right now, but we promise to keep you apprised of the progress of this issue. It will be extremely interesting to watch.

In the meantime, until the smoke clears, if you or someone you know has been injured on the job, it is imperative you seek experienced workers compensation counsel. There are time limits within which to file your claim, and procedural steps to take before your claim can be processed. An attorney experienced in workers compensation can assist you in pursuing your claim.