Florida Firefighter Gets Workers Comp Limitation Overturned

A St. Petersburg, Florida firefighter has successfully challenged a pro-employer worker’s compensation reform that limited the duration of temporary disability benefits to 104 weeks.

Bradley Westphal was injured in the line of duty on December 11, 2009. He ran out of temporary disability comp benefits two years later, and was medically unable to return to work. Because he had not reached his maximum medical improvement he was deemed ineligible for permanent disability benefits. As a result he received no compensation despite the fact that his disability was directly attributable to a line of duty injury.

Westphal appealed the denial of his permanent benefits arguing that the 104 week limitation on benefits as unconstitutional under the Florida state constitution.  The Article I, Section 21 of the Florida constitution states:

Access to courts.  The courts shall be open to every person for redress of any injury, and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.

Here is the court’s analysis in its own words:

Westphal, a firefighter and paramedic, injured his back and knee in the course of his employment. Westphal suffered severe injuries, resulting in nerve damage in the legs and requiring spine surgery and other medical treatment… .

The [fire department and the workers comp insurer] accepted the injury as compensable and paid Westphal temporary total disability benefits… .

While recovering from the most recent surgery, and while on a total disability status as declared by his workers’ compensation doctors, Westphal’s entitlement to the 104 weeks of temporary total disability benefits expired… . At this point … Westphal was incapable of working or obtaining employment, based on the advice of his doctors and the vocational experts that examined him.

In an attempt to replace his pre-injury wages that he was losing because of his injuries, approximately $1,500 per week, Westphal … filed a claim for permanent total disability benefits—a classification of benefits available to workers who have a disability total in quality and permanent in duration.

[The workers comp court] properly denied Westphal’s request for permanent total disability benefits, finding that because Westphal had not reached maximum medical improvement, it was too speculative to determine whether he would remain totally disabled from a physical standpoint after his maximum medical improvement status was reached…. [The court] acknowledged, Westphal fell into the “statutory gap” for indemnity benefits: He could no longer receive temporary benefits, and he was not yet eligible for permanent total disability benefits…. “

When the 104-week limit on Florida’s temporary total disability is compared to limits in other jurisdictions, it becomes readily apparent that the current limit is not adequate and does not comport with principles of natural justice…. The overwhelming majority of jurisdictions—in excess of forty—allow a minimum of 312 weeks, three times the benefits provided to Florida’s injured workers, up to a maximum entitlement of unlimited duration (i.e., for the duration of disability). Only five jurisdictions limit disability benefits to 104 weeks, and one of those has enough exceptions to allow for the receipt of disability benefits for up to seven years. …

The natural consequence of such a system of legal redress is potential economic ruination of the injured worker, with all the terrible consequences that this portends for the worker and his or her family.

A system of redress for injury that requires the injured worker to legally forego any and all common law right of recovery for full damages for an injury, and surrender himself or herself to a system which, whether by design or permissive incremental alteration, subjects the worker to the known conditions of personal ruination to collect his or her remedy, is not merely unfair, but is fundamentally and manifestly unjust.  

We therefore conclude that the 104-week limitation on temporary total disability benefits violates Florida’s constitutional guarantee that justice will be administered without denial or delay.

Further, we hold that there is simply no public necessity, much less an overpowering one, that has been demonstrated to justify such a fundamentally unjust system of redress for injury. In fact, workers’ compensation insurance premiums have declined dramatically in Florida since 2003, falling 56%. …

[T]he 104-week limitation is not an adequate substitute for the benefits provided to seriously injured workers in 1968, and no public necessity can justify the unjust nature of the system of redress available today. …

In striking down the 104 week limitation, the court referred to the provision as “draconian”, and rejected the Solicitor General’s argument that the limitation was a “public necessity” to help employers manage insurance costs.  

The decision was issued last Thursday, February 28, 2013. Here is a copy of the ruling. Bradley Westphal v.City of St.Petersburg

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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