The Florida Supreme Court will hear yet another case challenging the constitutionality of the state’s workers’ comp system on April 16, 2016. The case, Daniel Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital, et al., has been making its way through the state courts questioning if Florida’s workers’ comp system is an adequate alternative for injured workers since its major overhaul in 2003. More specifically, the case challenges if the elimination of a type of partial disability benefits by lawmakers is legal.
The court scheduled the April 16 case hearing on Jan. 22 after previously agreeing to hear the case back in October. According to the Florida Supreme Court document, participants in the case will be given a maximum of 20 minutes to argue their side.
The case stems from a back injury the petitioner, Stahl, suffered while working as a nurse for Hialeah hospital in 2003, just a few months after the changes to the workers’ comp system went into effect, according to court documents. In Oct. 2005, his treating physician found he had reached his maximum medical improvement (MMI) and assigned him a 6 percent impairment rating. He was restricted to lifting nothing above 10 pounds, which classified his injury as career-ending because he could not return to work as a nurse. He was then entitled to impairment income benefits of 12 weeks and compensated $5,472 for his career-ending injury.
It was later determined that Stahl did not meet the definition of permanent total disability (PTD) and his claim for PTD benefits was denied.
In his petition to the court, Stahl claims that the benefits available to him, and all injured employees since Oct. 1, 2003 when state’s workers’ comp reforms went into effect are “inadequate and therefore cannot be the exclusive remedy for on the job injuries.” The court documents filed say the state’s workers’ comp law, as it is today, violates the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs also argue that the Florida legislature has eliminated injured employees’ right to sue and the availability of partial disability benefits without providing an adequate replacement. The suit also takes issue with the addition of a copay for medical visits after a claimant reaches their MMI.
Multiple interest groups on both sides of the case have filed amici, also known as “friends-of-the-court” briefs, including the Florida Association of Insurance Agents (FAIA), the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America on behalf of Hialeah Hospital.
FAIA, whose motion was filed jointly with the American Association of Independent Claims Professionals (AAICP), argues the resolution of the case will have important ramifications for agents and claims professionals in the state.
“Petitioner, if successful, would imperil the entirety of the workers’ compensation act, clog the courts with costly lawsuits, and weaken Florida’s economy. [The petitioner’s] efforts should be rebuked,” FAIA and AAICP said in their brief.
Attorney General Pam Bondi also submitted an amici brief on behalf of the State of Florida in support of the respondents.
“Petitioner’s case is an improper vehicle for launching a broad-scale, facial attack on Florida’s workers’ compensation system,” the attorney general’s office states.
On the petitioner’s side, workers interest and public safety groups such as the Florida Professional Firefighters, the Florida Justice Association and police associations have filed briefs as well.
Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims and Division of Administrative Hearings David Langham said many have perceived the record on the Stahl case to be very abbreviated. Langham, who is not involved in this case, said for that reason it is possible the Florida Supreme Court has been “generous” with allowing a number of amici briefs to assure various perspectives are all considered.
“However, the court has generally been willing to hear from amici in the constitutional challenge cases,” Langham said.
Which party the high court rules in favor of in this particular case will be closely watched as Florida’s workers’ comp system continues to be challenged.
Several other workers’ compensation cases have challenged the states system in recent years. One of the cases that was in limbo was over the constitutionality of the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act. A lower court judge found the provision unconstitutional but that decision was later overturned by the Third District Court of Appeals. In December, the Florida Supreme Court denied a request by the plaintiffs to review the case.
Two other cases are still pending include one over whether the 104-week statutory cap on temporary total disability benefits is unconstitutional and another questioning the constitutionality of the statutory attorney fee formula. Last year, the court upheld the exclusive remedy portion of the law.
In Stahl’s request for the Supreme Court to hear the case, he argues that “in the 12 years since the 2003 amendments, workers’ compensation premiums have been reduced by approximately 60 percent. It is no longer necessary to keep benefit reductions in place to contain costs.”
Industry groups, such as the FAIA, say the current act “continues to compensate thousands of injured workers in a self-executing manner and without regard to fault.” Stahl, the FAIA and AAICP argue, has mounted an overbroad challenge to the state’s workers’ comp system, which he has no standing to claim.
“Workers’ compensation is an amazingly complex system that affects every employer and employee in Florida,” Langham said. “It is critical that decisions about this system be reasoned and clear. The participation of amici is hopefully conducive to that outcome.”
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