The Florida Supreme Court ruled June 9 that a 1994 law, limiting to 2 years the length of time that people can receive “temporary total disability benefits” under the state’s workers’ compensation scheme, violates the state’s constitution.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Bradley Westphal, is a former firefighter, who injured his back moving furniture during a rescue in 2009.
For two years Westphal received temporary total disability benefits, which are available to people who sustain injuries preventing them from performing any type of employment, but where the person has not yet reached “maximum medical improvement,” a necessary step to determine whether the injuries are permanent.
Despite not reaching MMI, according the statute, Westphal’s benefits were automatically cut off. He subsequently sued the state, contending that the limitation violated the state constitution’s guarantee to “access to the courts.”
Similar to other state workers’ compensation laws, Florida’s system bars employees from directly suing their employer for most workplace injuries through the regular tort system, in exchange for a no-fault system that guarantees a certain amount of compensation to injured employees. Under state legal precedent, this trade-off only complies with the Florida Constitution’s “access to the courts” provision if the workers’ compensation system provides a “reasonable alternative” to regular tort litigation.
As the Florida Supreme Court saw it, the two-year limitation, by barring Westphal from either suing his employer or receiving workers’ compensation benefits – even though his injuries were still preventing him from returning to work – brought the system out of compliance.
“We conclude that the 104-week limitation on temporary total disability benefits results in a statutory gap in benefits, in violation of the constitutional right to access to courts,” a 5-2 majority of the Court wrote in the 34-page opinion [PDF]. “The state legislative intent of the workers’ compensation law is to ‘assure the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker and to facilitate the worker’s return to gainful reemployment at a reasonable cost to employer.’
“The statute cuts off a severely injured worker from disability benefits at a critical time, when the worker cannot return to work and is totally disabled but the worker’s doctors – chosen by the employer – deem that the worker may still continue to medically improve.”
In 1990, the state’s maximum limit for temporary total disability benefits dropped from 350 to 260 weeks, before dropping to the 104 weeks four years later. With the ruling, the 260-week limitation is now back in effect, which the Florida Supreme Court previously upheld.
ProPublica and NPR released an extensive investigation in March 2015, titled “The Demolition of Worker’s Comp,” highlighting nationwide trends toward limiting total temporary disability benefits and other cutbacks in state workers’ compensation systems.