Florida House Moves Workers Comp Attorneys’ Fee Limit Bill

By Brent Kallestad | March 30, 2009

A bill that would restore a cap on attorney’s fees in Florida workers’ compensation cases is ready for a final vote in the House.

After an amendment was defeated, the measure (HB 903) sponsored by Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, was set for a floor vote in the House this week. Although it’s one of Speaker Larry Cretul’s top priorities, a similar Senate bill (SB 2072) is still in the committee process there as the regular session moves towards its midpoint this week.

“This is a good bill to bring stability to our rates to ensure we don’t have any other rate increases,” Flores said. “I feel good about getting in out of the House.”

Businesses argue the fee limit is needed to keep their insurance rates from becoming excessive. Trial lawyers, though, say it prevents injured workers from getting the legal represention needed to fight insurance companies that refuse to pay doctor bills and other legitimate claims.

If passed, the legislation would trump a Florida Supreme Court decision last October that struck down the cap on lawyer fees. The justices ruled attorneys should be paid reasonably for representing injured workers.

Flores said her bill was a way to keep costs down for business owners and perhaps help them stay open in a tough economy.

“Unless we do something, workers compensation rates will go up,” Flores said. “This bill ensures the attorney is never going to make more than the injured worker. That’s not fair.”

The amendment, offered by Miami Republican J.C. Planas, would have set a fee structure for attorneys. However, it would not have allowed them to recoup those expenses in rate filings. That change was defeated on a 69-45 vote after nearly an hour of debate on the bill and amendment.

In January, Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty signed off on a 6.4 percent increase on workers’ compensation rates that would take effect next Wednesday, which would cost business owners in the state an estimated $170 million.

“I hope that the legal and business communities will be able to strike an appropriate balance between the access to courts and the economic impact on Florida’s businesses while also still keeping workers’ compensation rates affordable for employers,” McCarty said Thursday. “Otherwise, failure to act will result in rate increases.”

The Supreme Court decision last fall was in the case of a nurse who was injured lifting a patient at a nursing home. Her lawyer helped her win $3,344 in lost wages and medical expenses after her initial claim was denied. The law, though, limited his fee to about $8 an hour while the insurance company’s lawyers were paid about $150 an hour.

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