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State high court hears arguments in workers comp constitutionality case

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The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in a case that questions whether the state's workers compensation system is an adequate exclusive remedy for injured workers.

Unlike two other workers comp cases pending before the state Supreme Court, which question the adequacy of a 104-week cap on temporary disability benefits and whether the attorney fee provision hinders an injured worker's ability to obtain legal representation, Daniel Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital challenges the system as a whole.

Miami attorney Mark Zientz, who represents Mr. Stahl, told justices that the state's workers comp system is no longer adequate as a result of 2003 reforms that eliminated permanent partial disability benefits, among other cuts.

“This is something that involves tens of thousands of people who are hurt every day,” Mr. Zientz said. “Not hurt on the job, but hurt by the system. And this is the court that has to make that decision as to whether or not they continue to get hurt or whether or not we can stop that.”

Tallahassee attorney Kenneth B. Bell, who argued on behalf of Hialeah Hospital, said Mr. Stahl “is the straw man in this case … because he got the same amount of benefits as he would have gotten in any prior version of the statute.”

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.

Voluntarily dismissing his petition before the Tallahassee-based 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.

“I see a lot of unfairness here, there's no question,” Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente said.

However, Justice Pariente did question how Mr. Stahl's case fits into the exclusive remedy conversation since he would have received the same benefits prior to Florida's 2003 reforms.

“We're making a facial challenge,” Mr. Zientz said. “We're saying this law is not appropriate for anybody.”

The justices did not say when the state Supreme Court would issue decisions for Mr. Stahl's case or the other two workers comp cases, Bradley Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg et al. and Marvin Castellanos v. Next Door Co. et al.