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Fla.: State Judge Finds Florida Workers' Compensation Act Unconstitutional

By Joanne Deschenaux  8/19/2014
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A Miami judge declared the Florida Workers' Compensation Act unconstitutional Aug. 13, 2014, concluding that the state legislature had so diminished medical care and wage-loss benefits for injured workers that the statute violates employees’ “fundamental” rights (Padgett v. Florida, Miami-Dade Cir. Ct., Case No. 11-13661 CA25).

Under Florida law, workers injured on the job must seek benefits under the workers’ compensation system. Except in unusual circumstances, they cannot sue their employers. In a case involving a Miami-Dade County government office worker, Circuit Judge Jorge E. Cueto said the nearly 80-year-old law forces injured workers into a legal system that does not provide adequate medical care or dollars to replace lost wages. Elsa Padgett was an account clerk who tripped in a walkway on Jan. 27, 2012, when a co-worker left boxes on the floor. She fell on her hip, but sustained the most serious damage to her shoulder. Following shoulder replacement surgery, Padgett, who was at retirement age, remained in significant pain and was eventually forced to retire.

“The benefits in the act have been so decimated,” Cueto wrote, “that it no longer provides a reasonable alternative” to filing suit in civil court.

In 1968, lawmakers amended state law to make the workers’ compensation system the “exclusive” legal remedy when an employee is injured on the job. At the time, the law required employers to pay all medical bills and significantly better benefits to workers who had lost all or part of their ability to earn a living. But in 1990, 1993 and 2003, the legislature made significant reductions to injured workers’ benefits.

Since the 2003 revisions to the law, premiums have declined by 56 percent, state records show.

In his order, Cueto said lawmakers had broken their end of the “trade” with workers—workers give up their right to sue in civil court when they are injured, but get a fast, efficient and no-fault justice system in its place—when they carved up the safety net of benefits that existed in 1968, when the bargain was reached.

“The purpose of a workers’ compensation act is not for it to be used as a weapon in an economic civil war,” Cueto wrote. “Its purpose is to provide adequate compensation for on-the-job injuries in place” of a worker’s ability to sue in civil court.

If it is appealed, Cueto’s order will join at least two other cases that challenge the constitutionality of at least a part of Florida’s workers’ compensation statute. The state Supreme Court already is considering an appeal from a St. Petersburg firefighter, Bradley Westphal, who suffered severe and disabling back injuries in 2009 and was left with no income after his temporary wage-loss benefits expired. He could not seek work upon the advice of doctors picked by his insurance carrier, and the carrier would not provide any benefits to support his family until doctors declared he was no longer capable of improving medically.

“This system of redress does not comport with any notion of natural justice, and its result is repugnant to fundamental fairness because it relegates a severely injured worker to a legal twilight zone of economic and familial ruin,” a three-judge Tallahassee appeals court panel wrote in a February 2013 opinion that struck down the statute. The full court later restored the law, and the case is now before the state’s highest court.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is SHRM’s senior legal editor.

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