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Florida disability benefits cap struck down in 'Westphal' case

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The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the state's 104-week cap on temporary total disability benefits is unconstitutional.

Bradley Westphal, who worked as a firefighter and paramedic for the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, sustained compensable injuries to his back and knee in 2009, court records show. He later received back surgery and additional medical treatment for nerve damage in his legs.

After exhausting Florida's 104-week cap on temporary total disability benefits, Mr. Westphal sought permanent total disability benefits, but a Florida judge of compensation claims denied his request since he hadn't reached maximum medical improvement, according to records.

The judge acknowledged that, despite the undisputed severity of Mr. Westphal's injuries and his inability to obtain employment, he fell into a “statutory gap” — no longer able to receive temporary benefits but not yet eligible for permanent total disability benefits, records show.

Mr. Westphal spent nine months without receiving any disability payments before his employer agreed he was entitled to permanent total disability benefits, and Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, Florida granted Mr. Westphal 260 weeks of total disability benefits in February 2013.

The Florida Legislature in 1991 reduced injured workers' available temporary total disability benefits from 350 to 260 weeks. In 1994, it reduced temporary total disability benefits from 260 to 104 weeks.

But a divided Florida Supreme Court on Thursday quashed the appellate court's decision, ruling that the 104-week statute is unconstitutional because it deprives injured workers of disability benefits for an “indefinite amount of time” and creates a system that “no longer functions as a reasonable alternative to tort litigation.”

In its 5-2 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court stated that the 1st District “valiantly attempted to save the statute from unconstitutionality” by deciding that injured workers who fall into the statutory gap wouldn't be cut off from compensation after 104 weeks.

However, the statute “deprives a severely injured worker of disability benefits at a critical time, when the worker cannot return to work and is totally disabled, but the worker's doctors — chosen by the employer — determine that the worker has not reached maximum medical improvement,” according to the ruling.

Addressing Mr. Westphal's argument that the limit on temporary total disability benefits violates his right of access to courts, the state Supreme Court said “there must eventually come a 'tipping point,' where the diminution of benefits” no longer provides a reasonable alternative to tort litigation.

Meanwhile, the dissenting justices rejected the argument that workers like Mr. Westphal are denied the right of access to the courts.