Florida’s no-fault automobile insurance law is fully in force for now after a district court lifted an injunction that blocked part of law on a legal technicality leaving open the possibility for further challenges in the future.
The Florida First District Court of Appeals issued the ruling in a case [McCarty v. First DCA 13-1355] brought forward by a group of acupuncturist and massage therapists that were excluded from being medical providers under the state’s personal injury protection.
They were joined by a group of chiropractors who were limited in the services they could provide when lawmakers reduced the amount of PIP benefits from $10,000 for emergency care to just $2,500 for non-emergency injuries.
The medical providers argued that those changes enacted by state lawmakers in 2012, unfairly infringed on their ability to be in business. They also stated it could prevent accident victims from receiving needed medical treatment.
In March, state Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis issued the injunction preventing the changes from going into effect.
Lewis put aside the medical providers’ economic issue, but said the purpose of the injunction was to protect “the constitutional right of citizens to seek redress in the courts if they are wrongfully injured. The medical providers are means to that end.”
That set before the First DCA the issue of whether the medical providers actually had standing to bring forward the case.
In a nine-page opinion, the First DCA ruled that since the medical providers could not present an actual instance where the new law infringed on their rights to access the courts they had no standing to bring forward the case. Even if the providers had standing, the court ruled, it would have to stem from actual accident victims affected by the law.
“The real parties in interest –injured motorists whose ability to sue tortfeasors has been impermissibly limited- are absent from this case,” opined the court.
As such, the court continued, the providers attempt to claim standing based on hypothetical arguments based on the harm to future accident victims also had no legal grounds.
“The providers attempt to bootstrap the standing requirement by joining the fictional ‘Jane Doe,’ purporting to represent all Florida citizens that were, are, or will be injured as a result of a motor vehicle collision, must likewise fail,” stated the court.
Adam Levine, of the Florida Legal Advocacy Group that represented the medical providers, said he is disappointed by the ruling and considering an appeal.
Levine, however, predicted that since the court did not address the merits of the case and merely ruled on the narrow legal grounds the medical providers had no standing, the ruling opens the door to more legal challenges.
“The problem of not ruling on the merits of the case is that it basically invited lawsuits from patients against every insurance company,” said Levine.
For the moment, however, industry representatives are relieved that the full PIP law is finally in force.
Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI) State Government Relations Counsel Donovan Brown said the ruling is a victory for Florida drivers.
“Although the ruling is a victory for consumers we anticipate those who make a living on PIP to continue challenging the law,” said Brown. “But for now Florida consumers are no longer stuck in neutral.”
Personal Insurance Federation of Florida Executive Director Michael Carlson said he is likewise pleased with the court ruling, saying that consumers will now see the full benefits of the law.
Carlson also noted it will clear up a lot of confusion in the industry, which has struggle over how to implement the reforms.
“Some companies have acted like the injunction will stand and been paying acupuncturists and massage therapist because they fear litigation if the law is found unconstitutional,” said Carlson. “Others have acted like the law is in place. This ruling is a signal to the industry that they can now move forward.”
The ruling could also have an impact on PIP rates. Under the law, all auto insurers are required to file for a 25 percent reduction in their PIP rates as of January 1, 2014 or provide a reason they could not.
Regardless of the court ruling, state lawmakers are going to at least entertain further PIP reforms or scrapping it altogether in favor of a tort system. Such a change would require all drivers to have bodily injury coverage.
Senate Banking and Insurance Chair David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) has scheduled a hearing on the issue in November.