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The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday issued rulings in two high-profile workers compensation cases challenging the constitutionality of the state's workers comp system and its attorney fee statute.
While the state Supreme Court unanimously decided not to review Daniel Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital, it ruled in Marvin Castellanos v. Next Door Co. et al. that the state's attorney fee schedule violates due process under state and federal law.
Calling the workers comp system an adequate exclusive remedy, Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal's March ruling in the Stahl case upheld the validity of the state's workers comp act — specifically the 1994 addition of a $10 copay for medical visits after an injured worker attains maximum medical improvement and the 2003 elimination of permanent partial disability benefits.
Mr. Stahl, who injured his lower back while working as a nurse in December 2003, filed a civil lawsuit alleging that Hialeah Hospital was negligent in causing his injury, arguing the workers comp system was an inadequate exclusive replacement remedy for a tort action.
Despite accepting jurisdiction to review the decision, the Florida Supreme Court said in its ruling Thursday in lede that, “after further consideration and hearing oral argument in this case, we have determined that we should exercise our discretion and discharge jurisdiction.”
In the Castellanos case, however, the state Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that Florida's attorney fee provision hinders an injured worker's ability to obtain legal representation.
The statute, which “creates an irrebuttable presumption that precludes any consideration of whether the fee award is reasonable to compensate the attorney, is unconstitutional under both the Florida and United States Constitutions as a violation of due process,” the court ruled.
Mr. Castellanos' lawyers received $165.54 for 107.2 hours of legal work that a Florida workers comp judge deemed “reasonably necessary” to secure workers comp benefits for injuries he received in a 2009 altercation with a co-worker, court records show.
Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal in October 2013 affirmed the fee award and posed the question of “constitutional adequacy” to the state Supreme Court.
“We answer the rephrased certified question in the affirmative, quash the First District's decision upholding the patently unreasonable $1.53 hourly fee award, and direct that this case be remanded to the JCC (judge of compensation claims) for entry of a reasonable attorney's fee,” according to the state Supreme Court's ruling.
Bradley Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg et al., which questions the adequacy of a 104-week cap on temporary disability benefits, is pending before the Florida Supreme Court.
Escalating medical costs and a series of pending lawsuits challenging Florida's workers compensation law could potentially reverse a trend of falling workers comp rates in the state, the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation said Friday.