The constitutionality of Florida’s workers’ compensation system may still be challenged as plaintiffs in the case, who were denied review by the Florida Supreme Court, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.
In Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital, plaintiffs are challenging the constitutionality of significant changes made to Florida’s workers’ compensation law back in 2003. It’s just one of many states in which workers’ compensation protections have been rolled back in recent years. This is an example of workers fighting back.
The question raised in Stahl is whether Florida’s workers’ compensation system is an adequate exclusive remedy for workers who are injured.
Although two other challenges to the state’s workers’ compensation system earlier this year prevailed, those cases focused on the state’s 104-week cap on temporary disability benefits, Stahl takes aim at the workers’ compensation system as a whole.
According to court records in the case, plaintiff was a nurse at a local hospital who injured his back just months after changes to the law took place.
The injury occurred in December 2003. In October 2005, his doctor opined he reached maximum medical improvement.
Plaintiff argues that the elimination of permanent partial disability benefits has rendered the state law an inadequate exclusive remedy. Plaintiff’s workers’ compensation lawyer argued that since the law was first passed, the constitutional protections have eroded to the point that it is no longer a fair exchange in the original “grand bargain.”
The grand bargain is the deal between the workers, who forfeited their right to sue their employer in court, and the employers, who agreed to provide expedient, no-fault benefits to cover lost wages and medical expenses.
Changes were made to Florida’s law in the early-2000s when workers’ compensation insurance rates were at an all-time high. The legislature acted to lower insurance rates by making it tougher to obtain benefits.
However, in two other recent challenges, the Florida Supreme Court decided both cases in plaintiff’s favor. The first involved finding the state’s worker’s compensation fees unconstitutional.
In Castellanos v. Next Door Co., the inflexible fee structure resulted in a situation where a workers’ compensation attorney was paid just $1.53 an hour for 107 hours worth of reasonable work on a case. The normal fee for such a case is approximately $350 an hour or on a contingency fee basis of one-third the total award. Although lower courts upheld the fee structure, the state supreme court ruled this was unconstitutional. The court noted that while the purpose of workers’ compensation is to provide injured workers with benefits efficiently and quickly, the reality is that it’s become increasingly complex – to the detriment of a claimant – who now needs an attorney to navigate the system.
That was an essential decision because if attorneys knew they would only be paid less than minimum wage for their time, they would never take on these cases.
In Stahl, plaintiff received $5,500 for 12 weeks of benefits. However, his back never fully healed. His doctor gave him a 6 percent impairment rating. Because he was no longer able to lift patients, his nursing career was effectively over. Yet with no permanent partial disability payment available, he has not been compensated for that loss.
The appeals court ruled the state law passes constitutional muster. The state supreme court initially accepted review of the case, but after hearing oral arguments, it declined to make a decision.
If the U.S. Supreme Court accepts review, it could set precedent for states outside of Florida.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Florida workers comp challenge seeks U.S. Supreme Court review, July 21, 2016, By Stephanie Goldberg, Business Insurance
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