Westphal v. St. Petersburg – Florida Injured Workers Win Big With Florida Supreme Court
Gregg Hollander | June 24, 2016 | Construction Accident
For the second time this year, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that part of the state’s workers’ compensation system is unconstitutional.
This, however, came after the court declined to rule on a case that challenged the constitutionality of the entire system. In both cases it did take on, the court was careful to say that the fact some parts of the law were tossed didn’t render the rest of it invalid.
In Westphal v. St. Petersburg, the most recent decision, the court looked at the constitutionality of F.S. 440.15(2)(a), which abruptly ends disability benefits to injured workers 104 weeks after temporary total disability (or once one has reached maximum medical improvement, whichever comes first). This two-year cut-off, enacted in one of the Florida legislature’s many attempts to whittle away worker protections in the name of lower insurance costs, left some injured workers unable to work but not having reached their greatest possible medical improvement and thus not able to collect any benefits at all. This, the court ruled, is both unacceptable and unconstitutional.
In fact, in a concurring in result opinion by Justice R. Fred Lewis, it was outright stated that workers’ compensation benefits in this state have been steadily chipped away and reduced by lawmakers, and jurists are agreeing, “enough is enough.” In fact, he proposed scrapping the entire Florida workers’ compensation scheme and starting over with a framework that will better align with the original intent of workers’ compensation law, which is to provide a “grand bargain” for both workers and employers. That bargain allows workers a no-fault system of quick and adequate compensation for work-related injuries in exchange for forfeiture of the right to sue.
Lewis wrote that while the Majority on the court does not take the view that the entire system should be deemed unconstitutional, it has recognized the steady eroding of worker rights. He added that instead of trying to continue upholding a workers’ compensation system that is filled with flawed analyses, judicial patches and rewrites, it should be invalidated where defective and lawmakers should create a program that is both comprehensive and valid.
Strong words from the highest court in the state, and a reminder that the Westphal case and others have significance to others beyond this individual plaintiff.
According to court records, this case involved a 53-year-old firefighter who sustained a major back injury while moving furniture as he was fighting a fire. He was awarded temporary total disability benefits and could not return to work.
Two years passed and he had not yet reached maximum medical improvement. However, when that 104-week deadline hit, he lost all his disability benefits, and there was no guarantee when they might resume because permanent disability benefits aren’t awarded until one meets maximum medical improvement. This lapse, plaintiff argued was unconstitutional. Although the lower courts did not concur, the Florida Supreme Court did.
This was after the court decided in favor of the injured worker in Castellanos v. Next Door Company, in which the court in April that the workers’ compensation attorney fee schedule that in some cases left workers’ compensation lawyers being paid less than minimum wage. Of course, this deters personal injury attorneys from practicing workers’ compensation law, which leaves workers on their own to navigate the legal system and puts them at a disadvantage. The court ruled this was unconstitutional and attorneys should be paid reasonable fees.
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Westphal v. St. Petersburg, June 9, 2016, Florida Supreme Court