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Florida Supreme Court Finds Another Provision of WC Law Unconstitutional

Florida Supreme Court Finds Another Provision of WC Law Unconstitutional

For the second time in six weeks, the Florida Supreme Court has held part of Florida’s workers’ compensation law to be unconstitutional.  In Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of section 440.15(2)(a), Florida Statutes, which cuts off disability benefits at 104 weeks for a worker who is totally disabled and incapable of working but who has not yet reached maximum medical improvement.  The court found this limitation to be unconstitutional under article I, section 21, of the Florida Constitution, as a denial of citizens’ right of access to courts.

The court’s opinion noted that benefits had dropped from an earlier 260 weeks, which was found to be constitutional, to the current 104 weeks.  The court analyzed whether the current 104-week statutory provision is an “adequate, sufficient, or even preferable safeguard” for workers to justify application of the statutory workers’ compensation system instead of the tort system it otherwise replaces.  The court found that the 104-week provision is not an adequate substitute and therefore constitutes an unconstitutional infringement on access to courts.

Under Florida law, the effect of finding the current statute to be unconstitutional is to revert to the prior version of the statute, provided it too is not unconstitutional.  The court noted that the prior provision allowing 260 weeks of benefits was found to be constitutional.  Therefore, the 260-week provision is revived.

It is not yet clear what the rate impact will be resulting from the Westphal decision.  In April, the Florida Supreme Court in Castellanos v. Next Door Company held that a statutory attorneys’ fee schedule is unconstitutional.  The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) subsequently filed a rate increase of approximately 17% with the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR), of which about 15% is attributable to the Castellanos decision.  The OIR has indicated it will hold a public hearing on the rate filing in July.

The Supreme Court’s recent decisions and the resulting rate impact on Florida businesses assure that workers’ compensation insurance will be a priority issue heading into the 2017 legislative session.