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In a rare victory for injured Florida workers, the First District Court of Appeal has held the 104 week limitation on temporary total disability benefits unconstitutional.
On February 29, 2013, in the case of Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, the Florida First District Court of Appeal ruled the limiting provision of the workers compensation law unconstitutional. Westphal, an injured firefighter sought permanent total disability benefits beyond the 104 week limitation under the Florida Workers’ Compensation Law. Westphal had exhausted the 104 weeks of eligibility for temporary total disability benefits under the new law, but was not at his overall point of maximum medical improvement which would make him eligible for permanent benefits. He fell into the class of injured workers under this new law who are unable to work but are not receiving any disability payments, because they have exhausted their entitlement to temporary benefits before they reached overall maximum medical improvement.
In a bold move, the Court declared section 440.15(2)(a), F.S. (104 week limitation) unconstitutional and granted the injured worker additional benefits not to exceed 260 weeks, as would have been provided under the prior law. The Court said Westphal had been denied his constitutional right of access to courts and the constitutionally guaranteed right to the administration of justice without denial or delay, in violation of the Florida Constitution. The Court further noted that the “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.” Explaining the unfairness of the current law, the court noted “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. A system of redress for injury that requires the injured worker to legally forego any and all common law right of recovery for full damages for an injury, and surrender himself or herself to a system which, whether by design or permissive incremental alteration, subjects the worker to the known conditions of personal ruination to collect his or her remedy, is not merely unfair, but is fundamentally and manifestly unjust.”
So where do we go from here? Is this a sign of hope for injured workers who have to navigate through an unfair system dominated and controlled by employers and insurance carriers? Will restrictions on temporary partial disability benefits be similarly held unconstitutional? The Court did not address this but we can expect to see cases in the future challenging that and other areas of the new workers compensation law that are unfair and arbitrary, such as the removal of the right to an award of reasonable attorney fees in 2009 and the consequent inability of injured workers to pay their counsel directly for representation. Time will tell, but in the meantime injured workers are smiling with renewed hope in our system of justice.