Letter: Courts Deciding On Workers’ Comp Benefits

The provision in the workers’ compensation law passed in 1994 that limits benefits during medical treatment to 104 weeks has been struck down in the matter of Westphal vs. City of St. Petersburg.

Currently, until perhaps the Florida Supreme Court decides otherwise, injured workers who are under active medical treatment will be entitled to collect 66 2/3 percent of their average weekly wages for a total of 260 weeks.

The court used strong language writing that limiting benefits to 104 weeks was a “draconian reduction of temporary total disability payments.” Furthermore, the limitation is “indicative of a systemic deprivation of justice” that violates the constitutional rights of employees who suffer serious injuries.

An injured worker who underwent multiple back surgeries was unable to work, according to the employer’s treating doctor, yet, since he had received 104 weeks of compensation, his checks stopped, and for nine months he had no means of earning a living. The court noted that ending benefits while the injured worker is unable to earn money can cause economic ruination. “The natural consequence of such a system of legal redress is potential economic ruination of the injured worker, with all the terrible consequences that this portends for the worker and his or her family.”

Prior to the creation of a no-fault workers’ compensation system, an injured worker had the right to sue for injuries and collect for necessary medical treatment, lost wages and pain and suffering. The new worker’s compensation law was supposed to be for “easily ascertained compensation.” The new system must meet the test of “natural justice,” which in part means that “courts shall be open to every person for redress of any injury, and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.”

The issues with the Florida compensation law is a bit technical, but generally, because of the limitation of 104 weeks, a worker had no opportunity to obtain compensation until the injured worker returned to work. This “gap” favored the insurance carrier, since the carrier has the right to choose the treating doctor, and the treating doctor determines when the injured may return to work.

It will be interesting to see if the Florida Supreme Court agrees with the strong language used in the appellate court’s decision. Ultimately the Florida Supreme Court is the final authority to determine whether a Florida law violates the Florida Constitution. The decision is likely to turn on whether the high court believes that workers are adequately compensated or whether insurance companies must do more to provide benefits. Since the current law was enacted, employers have paid much less for coverage. How much increasing benefits from 104 weeks to 260 weeks might affect insurance rates is yet to be determined.

Frank J. Morelli, Wellington