Fair to workers, businesses
Palm Beach Post Editorial
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
A good compromise remains possible for one of this year’s most important and contentious issues.
That would be fees for attorneys who win benefits wrongly denied to injured workers. Last fall, deciding a case in which the winning lawyer got a fee of just $8 per hour, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously that attorneys in such cases are entitled to "reasonable" fees. Current law, as the justices noted, is contradictory. It allows "reasonable" fees but also sets out a fee schedule based on the benefits awarded. In that case, the attorney spent 80 hours to win $3,244.21. Thus the small fee.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce’s top priority is House Bill 903, which would override the court’s decision by removing the word "reasonable" but keeping the fee schedule. That change alone, however, would be unfair to workers with legitimate claims. If lawyers believe that they won’t get fair compensation, they won’t take the case. There are no limits on how much insurers can pay attorneys to defend denials of benefits.
Until last week, the Senate version of the legislation had been just as unfair. But the Judiciary Committee, by a vote of 8-1, approved a new version of SB 2072. It treats workers fairly by setting a reasonable fee schedule. It treats business fairly by not allowing hourly fees that attorneys can run up and by limiting policy increases when companies lose such cases. The only dissenting vote came from the sponsor of the original bill. This week, the new version passed another committee unanimously and is ready for a full Senate vote.
Workers compensation rates have decreased markedly since reforms of 2003. Some business groups fear that not overriding the court ruling would reverse that progress and push rates back up sharply. In fact, rates for 2009 went down even after the ruling. Florida needs a system that treats workers and businesses fairly. The Senate should pass this compromise, and the House should go along.