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Suit challenges 'core' of Florida's workers comp system

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The latest workers compensation case accepted by the Florida Supreme Court may pose the biggest challenge yet to the state's exclusive remedy provision.

The Florida Supreme Court last month agreed to consider Daniel Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital, which questions whether the state's workers comp system is adequate in light of 2003 reforms that eliminated permanent partial disability benefits.

With two other workers comp cases, Bradley Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg et al. and Marvin Castellanos v. Next Door Co. et al., already pending before the court, sources say all eyes remain fixed on Florida.

In December 2003, two months after workers comp reforms took effect, Mr. Stahl injured his lower back while working as a nurse at Hialeah Hospital, court records show.

His treating physician determined that he reached maximum medical improvement in October 2005 and assigned him a 7% disability rating, according to records.

Voluntarily dismissing his petition before the Florida Office of the Judges of Compensation Claims, which adjudicates disputes over workers comp benefits, Mr. Stahl filed a civil lawsuit alleging that the hospital was negligent in causing his injury due to insufficient staffing and questioned the constitutionality of the state's comp system without being able to collect permanent partial disability.

Miami attorney Mark Zientz, who represents Mr. Stahl, said “you can't have a constitutional workers compensation law if you eliminate the benefit known as permanent partial disability and if you eliminate full medical care.”

While Westphal challenges the adequacy of the state's 104-week cap on temporary benefits and Castellanos argues that the attorney fee provision hinders an injured worker's ability to obtain legal representation and pursue remedies, Stahl challenges “the core of the system,” said Trey Gillespie, Austin, Texas-based senior workers comp director at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

By questioning the exclusive remedy provision, Stahl “certainly creates the potential for the entire system to go up in smoke,” Mr. Gillespie said. Whereas, if the plaintiffs in the other pending cases prevail, only portions of the state's Workers' Compensation Act would be affected, he said.

“If the (Florida) Supreme Court intends to deal with the entire subject of workers compensation and not do it piecemeal, then Castellanos and Westphal will probably not be decided until Stahl is decided,” said Mr. Zientz of the Law Offices of Mark L. Zientz P.A. “If they're going to hear them piecemeal, then Castellanos and Westphal (decisions) could be (issued) any day.”