TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Nearly 13 years after lawmakers overhauled the state's workers-compensation insurance system, the Florida Supreme Court is poised to hear a legal challenge that could have major implications for businesses, insurers and injured workers.
Justices will hear arguments Wednesday in a constitutional challenge to a key part of the workers-compensation system -- and have long mulled two other cases that take issue with workers-compensation laws.
In each case, plaintiffs essentially argue that lawmakers have gone too far in taking away rights and benefits from people who get injured on the job. But business groups and their allies say, in part, that legislative changes made in 2003 were crucial for addressing a "crisis" in spiraling workers-compensation insurance rates and that the lawsuits threaten to drive up costs again.
"A reversion to pre-2003 law would only cause the 'crisis' to arise again, thereby increasing the costs of insurance, directly impacting the affordability of coverage for Florida employers, and reducing the guaranteed protection of workers for work-related injuries,'' said a brief filed by attorneys for Hialeah Hospital and Sedgwick Claims Management Services, the defendants in the case going before the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
But an attorney for former Hialeah Hospital nurse Daniel Stahl, whose on-the-job back injury prompted the case, argued in a brief that premiums went down far more than predicted when the 2003 law was passed and that lost benefits were not subsequently restored for injured workers.
"This (Supreme) court has indicated it has little patience for the crises mentality, especially where the crisis, if there ever was one, has gone away,'' said the brief, filed in November by Stahl's attorney, Mark Zientz said.
As an indication of the interest in Wednesday's arguments, two-dozen groups have signed on to friend-of-the-court briefs. Supporting the challenge are groups such as the Florida Justice Association, the Police Benevolent Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Florida Professional Firefighters. Opposing it are groups such Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Florida League of Cities.
The workers-compensation system is highly complex and is supposed to provide benefits that will help get injured workers back on the job while avoiding civil lawsuits.
The Stahl challenge argues, in part, that the system is unconstitutional because the 2003 law "decimated and eviscerated" benefits, while injured workers still could not pursue civil lawsuits. It contends that the system violates rights to due-process rights and the right to access to courts. Stahl could not return to work as a nurse after injuring his back, but the 2003 law eliminated a type of benefit related to permanent partial disability, the challenge says.
But Hialeah Hospital and Sedgwick, represented in part by former Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Bell, contend that the court should not decide the constitutional issues. They point to a lengthy history of the case and say Stahl does not have legal "standing" to bring the challenge.
Justices will take up the Stahl case more than a year after hearing arguments in the two other pending workers-compensation challenges. The court, as is customary, has not indicated when it will in rule in those two cases.
One of the cases, which stems from injuries suffered in 2009 by a South Florida man, Marvin Castellanos, during an altercation with another worker at their employer, challenges the constitutionality of limits on attorneys' fees in workers-compensation disputes.
The other case involves injuries suffered in 2009 by St. Petersburg firefighter Bradley Westphal and focuses on a two-year limit on what are known as "temporary total disability" benefits. Westphal received those benefits but then had a gap of several months before he could get permanent benefits.
In a brief filed in the Stahl case, the Florida Justice Association trial-lawyers group argued that the workers-compensation system has undergone a "death of constitutionality by a thousand legislative cuts." It argued that the Supreme Court should reject the 2003 changes and return the system to a 1990 law that was found constitutional.
"The sacrifice of reasonable benefits for injured workers in exchange for lower rates has created a 'race to the bottom' to see which state can win. Florida leads the pack,'' the association's friend-of-the-court brief said. "In the process, the (workers- compensation) act has become bastardized from its intended purpose and injured workers are the scapegoats sacrificed at the altar."
But in another brief, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the business-backed Florida Justice Reform Institute warned that a ruling in favor of Stahl could "implode" the workers-compensation system.
"For decades, workers' compensation has been providing much needed benefits to injured Florida workers in a timely, efficient, and economically sound manner,'' the brief said. "Florida's employers depend on the program because, in exchange for providing workers' compensation benefits to their employees, they receive immunity from costly and prolonged tort litigation. If the immunity provision is held optional or invalid, the entire system will collapse."