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Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Is On Trial

In 2003, Florida’s legislature made a number of changes to the law regarding workers’ compensation, the mandatory insurance program which provides medical and lost wages payments to employees who are injured on the job or else grow ill because of working conditions. Then and ever since, workers’ advocates have argued that these changes went too far, and although it’s taken over 10 years, these changes are now being challenged in the Florida Supreme Court.

Tort Reform

Back in 2003, there was evidently something of a crisis in workers’ compensation insurance. Costs were spiraling out of control, and so Florida’s elected leaders decided to cut down on legally required benefits so that insurance providers could reduce the cost of insurance premiums. They also switched workers’ comp lawyers from an hourly wage to a percentage of the settlement, a payment structure which is fairly common throughout the civil law system.

However, these benefits cutbacks included such things as limiting permanent total disability payments to the age of 75 or 5 years, whichever is greater, whereas originally they lasted for the worker’s entire lifetime. Temporary total disability payments could last up to 6 and a half years and temporary partial disability payments went for 5, which meant a badly injured worker could count on workers’ comp benefits for almost 12 years, but the maximum now is 2 years for full and hardly anything for partial. Today’s workers’ comp will also only pay for one full examination per accident.

At the same time, workers’ compensation and its parallel legal system is the only recourse for Floridians injured on the job thanks to a provision in the 1968 state constitution. This means that workers cannot reject their benefits and sue their employer in civil court, and while that wasn’t much of a problem back with 1968 benefits, today’s workers don’t have quite so many reasons to accept workers’ comp over litigation.

Judicial Reform

Three cases currently before the Florida Supreme Court challenge three separate aspects of Florida’s workers’ compensation law: Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg et al. argues that two years of temporary total disability benefits aren’t nearly enough, Castellanos v. Next Door Co. et al. says that the new legal compensation system makes it unconstitutionally hard to get a good lawyer, and Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital challenges the “exclusive remedy” clause in the Florida Constitution itself.

Together, these cases provide the possibility for some significant changes in Florida’s workers’ compensation law. Stahl v Hialeah Hospital in particular could potentially force Florida’s legislature to return a certain level of benefits, because if workers can challenge their employers in civil court with a trial by jury, it would provide a certain level of competition to the insurance program.

After all, no-fault workers’ compensation insurance is supposed to replace the expensive and time-consuming litigation process where you have to argue your case, prove fault, and then negotiate a fair settlement either before going to court or else through a jury’s decision (which will then likely be appealed to a higher court). However, if the insurance benefits amount to basically nothing, there’s no reason to prefer it over the alternative.

Florida’s Supreme Court currently holds the fate of her workers in its hands. We can only hope for now that its decision will be a wise one.