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Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg: Florida Supreme Court Rules Limit of Workers’ Comp. Unconstitutional

A big win for injured workers was handed down recently by the Florida Supreme Court in Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, wherein it was decided limitation on temporary total disability benefits violates the state constitution. workers

So concludes a five-year legal battle in a closely-watched workers’ compensation claim filed when a 53-year-old city firefighter suffered a serious back injury while moving furniture as he battled a blaze. Plaintiff was totally disabled and unable to work. But state legislators overhauled the state’s workers’ compensation system back in 2003 amid pressure from business and insurance lobbyists, ultimately cutting off temporary total disability benefits after just two years.

As plaintiff’s attorney later told the Orlando Sentinel, “For anyone that had continued disability, this is an important thing. You can’t arbitrarily say people aren’t going to get benefits after a magical time limit like this.” 

This is significant for those who have suffered a work-related personal injury because as a recent in-depth investigation by ProPublica revealed, worker benefits within the entire workers’ compensation system – the “grand bargain” between workers and their employers – has been eroded across the country in the last decade. The trade-off was always that workers were to be granted access to a no-fault system of benefits for work-related injuries, while forfeiting the right to sue the employer for negligence. Those benefits have been slowly chipped away by legislators in state after state, and yet, workers still don’t have the right to sue their employer.

The Westphal decision made it clear that when workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy to litigation, it must function as a reasonable alternative. Here, it did not. The state high court ruled that under article I, section 21 of the Florida Constitution, which prohibits denial of access to the courts, is trampled with this arbitrary cut-off date because it deprives the injured worker of disability benefits under these circumstances for an indefinite amount of time. Further, the court called Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals’ effort to spare the statute from being deemed unconstitutional “valiant,” but ruled the judiciary does not have the authority to rewrite a statute that is plainly written – even the point is to avoid that law being found unconstitutional.

Specifically, the statute says that once a worker reaches a maximum of 104 weeks or maximum medical improvement – whichever comes sooner – the worker’s temporary total disability benefits are to cease and the injured worker’s permanent impairment shall be determined (F.S. 440.15(2)(a) ). However, the statute fails to ensure the worker is at that time legally entitled to receive permanent disability benefits. Neither does it provide that the worker will be automatically deemed to be at maximum medical improvement, based on the fact that temporary total disability benefits have stopped.

The end result, the court noted, is that the law severs disability benefits from workers at a critical juncture – when the worker can’t go back to work and is totally disabled, but the employer’s chosen physicians decide the worker might still medically improve.

The court was careful to say that in finding this provision unconstitutional, it does not mean the entire workers’ compensation system in Florida has to be scrapped. Instead, the court employed a “statutory revival” of the previous limit on temporary total disability benefits, which was 260 weeks, or five years. That time frame, it had been previously established, is constitutional.

The 5-2 ruling was the second recent victory for labor groups and plaintiff’s attorneys, as the court recently ruled in April that a law establishing limits on attorney’s fees in workers’ compensation cases was unlawful.

If you have been a victim of a Miami work injury, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, June 9, 2016, Florida Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

GEICO v. Macedo – Auto Insurer Must Pay Plaintiff Attorney Fees, May 20, 2016, Miami Work Injury Lawyer Blog

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