Florida Workers’ Compensation Legislation Update from Tallahassee

April 17, 2017 in

As everyone involved in Workers’ Compensation knows last the last 18 months have been a wild ride.  The Supreme Court of Florida struck down the attorney fee limitations for claimants (injured workers) so there is now a right to hire a lawyer to help if you are hurt at work.  We have been practicing Workers’ compensation for a long time and this was a much-needed change in the law.  We are far better able to help injured victims now.

However, the business community is up in arms. Workers’ Compensation Insurance Carriers were ready to raise their Work Comp premiums before the first new attorney claim was even filed. Now the legislature is working on new workers’ compensation reform measures and there are two competing bills.

The first bill is a great bill that was introduced in the Florida State Senate by Sen. Rob Bradley under the name SB 1582.  It is a fair compromise between the victim’s right to hire a lawyer and the insurance companies desire to limit inflated claims.  It limits the attorney fees to a reasonable hourly rate of $250, (which is ¼ of what a highly paid attorney could charge) and allows the conservative Work Comp Judges to limit the number of hours.  That way no awards will be out of line.  This is a fair compromise because it allows the victim to get a good lawyer but won’t reward lawyers who try to take advantage of the system.  On the whole, this is the fair and balanced bill.

Then there is the Florida House of Representative Bill. The House committee passed that House Bill (HB 7085) by a vote of 20-9 so it will go to the Florida Senate for review.  That bill seeks to give 100% of the control back to the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Companies and limit all benefits and rights so that injured workers must take what they are given and live with the minimum benefits.

The lawyers in this firm are proud members of the Florida Justice Association (FJA).  FJA set out four pillars for insurance reform to take on which are critical for balanced workers’ compensation reforms.  They are:

  1. Develop a transparent rate-making process that allows for meaningful competition.
  2. Permit an element of patient choice of physician in medical care.
  3. Develop a mid-level tier for providing benefits once the doctor determines the employee has reached Maximum Medical Improvement.
  4. Ensure that injured workers have proper access to the court by maintaining a reasonable standard for attorneys’ fees.

The goal of Workers’ Compensation is to give the injured worker the necessary treatment and help they need to recover and return to work.

The House bill not only attempts to take away the victim’s right to get attorney representation or pay any attorney fees, even though the employer/carrier always has the capacity to hire lawyers to fight unrepresented injured people. The committee declined to give injured workers any opportunity to get a second opinion so the victim can’t check whether the doctor they were assigned, and who was hired by the Workers’ Compensation Insurance carrier to treat the injured person, wasn’t minimizing the injury!   The committee also failed to put any provision in their bill to force carriers to take advantage of free-market principles so competition would drive down rate making.  All in all this bill looks and feels like a law any smart insurance company would want to write.  A law that forces businesses to pay high premiums for coverage that won’t ever need to make any significant payments to injured people.

As the law stands today I would say it is already pro-employer.  When I was a young attorney the workers’ compensation legislation did far more for injured workers than it does now.  Far far more.  But today we have laws which are designed to protect insurance companies and big businesses. Did you know that when a worker is hurt on the job, that worker does not get a choice of which doctor they want to see?  His workers’ compensation insurance company dictates which doctor to see and what medical treatment that worker will get.  That is why a second opinion is such an important part of the Senate bill.  There needs to be some counterbalance.  Also, the insurance company has a fleet of attorneys to defend them.  The injured worker can’t afford his house payments on the meager worker’s compensation out of work wage benefits.  How can they ever hire a lawyer without some rights to recoup the fees if they win?

At this point, both bills are a toss-up.  Who knows what will happen in the Florida legislature?  Both have strong support but on different sides of the aisle.  Maybe we will see the legislature combine them into one solid bill.  Hopefully, they will take the victim’s rights into account and not just pass another law to protect insurance companies.