Miami judge declared Florida workers’ compensation law unconstitutional, because medical care and wage-loss benefits for injured workers have been so diminished over the years that the current statute now violates employees’ “fundamental” rights.
According to Circuit Judge Jorge E. Cueto regarding the case of a Miami-Dade County government office worker, he said the almost 80-year-old law is so flawed that it no longer provides adequate medical care or enough money to replace lost wages. Like some other states, Florida law requires injured workers to seek benefits under the workers’ comp system. Only in rare circumstances, can they sue their employers.
“The benefits in the act have been so decimated that it no longer provides a reasonable alternative to filing suit in civil court,” Cueto reports.
The case presented before Cueto involved an account clerk who tripped over some boxes a co-worker left on the floor. The plaintiff, who was at retirement age, fell on her hip and severely damaged her shoulder. She had to have shoulder replacement surgery and was left in a state of chronic pain and forced to retire. Her attorney said, “The free ride for injuring workers on the job is over. The workers’ comp law has been eviscerated and now we have a judge who essentially admitted that.”
If appealed, Cueto’s order will be the third case to question the constitutionality of Florida’s workers’ compensation statute. Currently, the state Supreme Court is considering another appeal from St. Petersburg. After a firefighter suffered a disabling back injury he was left with no source of income until doctors said there was no chance of medical improvement. His temporary wage-loss benefits expired and he couldn’t work. One lawyer said that the law is fundamental unfair because it relegates a severely injured worker to a legal twilight zone of economic and familial ruin.
The stakes remain high for the blue-collar and agricultural workers in Florida who are hit the hardest when injured.In 1968, Florida lawmakers amended state law so if an employee was injured on the job they could receive workers’ compensation. The agreement was for employers to pay all medical bills and the injured worker would not sue the employer in court. This benefited both parties: the employee would receive quick payment and the employer would not have to shell out additional money for larger settlements.
So what’s gone wrong? In 1990, 1993 and 2003, along with other years, injured workers’ benefits diminished over time. Both in 1993 and 2003, lawmakers slashed benefits after industry complaints that workers’ compensation insurance carriers were charging among the highest premiums in the country. Since the 2003 revisions to the law, premiums have declined by 56 percent.
The tension between these workers and the lawmakers and business leaders in Florida has simmered for years and continue to stay hot as worker rights lawyers appeal to judges to end the law once and for all. But the fight goes on. Lawmakers and business leaders argue high workers’ compensation insurance premiums threatened the state’s economic growth, while employees and worker advocates rebuke their claims. They say Florida has widespread insurance fraud that causes the high premiums.