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Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Cap on Temporary Disability Benefits

Jun 10, 2016 in Case Law Updates by

In a 5-2 decision authored by Judge Barbara J. Pariente, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Workers Compensation statute that provided a cap on temporary disability benefits.[1] This portion of the statute[2] provided temporary benefits for 104 weeks or until the employee reached maximum medical improvement, whichever came first. In addition to temporary benefits, the statute allowed for an employee to collect permanent disability benefits once the employee had proven that it had a permanent total disability.[3]

The Supreme Court reviewed the applicability of these two statutory provisions to a firefighter named Bradley Westphal who had been injured while on the job. Mr. Westphal had suffered from a severe lower back injury caused by lifting heavy furniture in the course of fighting a fire. Due to his injuries, he underwent multiple surgical procedures including a spinal fusion. Westphal received on-going medical treatment which was covered under temporary disability benefits. However, at the end of the 104 weeks, his physicians believed that he had not yet reached maximum medical improvement. The Supreme Court recognized that Westphal had fallen into a statutory gap—“cut off from disability benefits for an indefinite amount of time, unless and until he could claim entitlement to permanent total disability benefits at some future date and, even then, without any ability to recover disability benefits for his time in the statutory gap.”

Based upon this legislative-created gap, Westphal challenged the constitutionality of the law. He argued that the Workers Compensation statute, as it applied to his situation, did not provide a “reasonable alternative to tort litigation.” The Court agreed and held that the gap effectively eliminated any cause of action Westphal had and denied him access to the courts in violation of the Florida Constitution.

Relying on a long-held principle of law, the Court also held that the striking of this provision of the Workers Compensation statute as unconstitutional effectively revived the statute’s predecessor. In doing so, the Court concluded that the pre-1994 version of the Workers Compensation statute takes effect. This version of the statute allows for 260 weeks of temporary total disability benefits.[4] The Court reasoned that allowing for 260 weeks in temporary benefits is “a reasonable alternative to tort litigation,” because the worker is not without a remedy.

While the majority opinion revives the 1994 statute, Justice Fred Lewis argued in his concurring opinion that the 260 week provision is only a Band-Aid and still has the same issues. He argued that the remedy offered by the Court “simply moves the goalposts without eliminating the unconstitutional statutory gap that will still persists for those who remain totally—but not permanently—disabled.”

This decision is the second in 2016 addressing the constitutionality of the Workers Compensation system. In April, the Court found that attorneys fee schedule unconstitutional. As a result, the National Council for Compensation Insurance reported a 17.1 percent increase last month for states workers compensation rates.[5]

[1] Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, et. al., SC13-1930 (Fla. June 9, 2016).

[2] Fla. Stat. 440.015(2)(a)

[3] Fla. Stat. 440.015(1)

[4] Fla. Stat. 400.15(2)(a) (1991).

[5] Florida Supreme Court Rejects Another Part of Workers-Comp System, Orlando Sentinel, Jim Saunders; June 9, 2016.

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