On August 13, 2014 Miami-Dade 11th Circuit Judge Jorge Cueto in Florida Workers’ Advocates v. State of Florida held that the Florida Workers’ Compensation Act, as amended effective October 1, 2003, is unconstitutional as long as it contains the exclusive remedy provision (Section 440.11, Florida Statute). The reason he provided for this conclusion is that the benefits provided under the Act do not provide the worker “a reasonable alternative to the tort remedy supplanted.”
In 2003 reforms were enacted to increase the availability and affordability of coverage and reduce litigation. Since those reforms premium rates have been reduced by approximately 56 percent.
Some provisions of the bill effective on October 1, 2003:
- The workers’ compensation accident must be the major contributing cause for disability or the need for treatment.
- Elimination of the payment of permanent partial disability benefits available in certain cases.
- Permanent total disability benefits were changed to end at age 75 in most cases.
- Permanent total disability benefits are payable for no more than 5 years, if the employee was 70 or older at the time of accident.
- Limited the fees paid to attorneys in workers’ compensation.
This circuit court opinion does not establish any precedent for trial courts in the rest of the state. Unless and until this decision is addressed by an appellate court, it has no precedential value. Moreover, since the issue of whether an employer is immune from tort liability in any given case is not one that concerns the Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC), the Circuit Court's ruling has no effect on pending or future workers’ compensation claims.
Background and Case Summary
This issue began with a complaint for damages brought by Julio and Nelida Cortes who alleged injury due to the negligence of his employer, Velda Farms. The employer raised the affirmative defense that workers’ compensation was the employee’s exclusive remedy. The complaint was then amended to seek a declaration that the exclusive remedy provision was invalid because it violated the due process clause of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution as well as various rights guaranteed by the Florida Constitution.
Florida Workers’ Advocates (FWA) and Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG) sought and were granted the right to intervene as plaintiffs. Thereafter, Velda Farms abandoned its exclusive remedy defense. FWA and WILG moved to sever the declaratory relief action from the personal injury litigation. This motion was granted and the matter was allowed to proceed independently although the only defendant, Velda Farms had been dismissed. Elsa Padgett, through her counsel moved to intervene and the motion was granted, although her employer was not named as a defendant. The attorney for Ms. Padgett happens to also be the attorney for the defendant in the Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg case pending before the Florida Supreme Court. See below for detail on this case.
The State of Florida, Office of the Attorney General was notified of the proceedings, but did not intervene except to file a response to the court’s order to show cause why the state’s workers’ compensation exclusive remedy provision should not be declared unconstitutional.
The Office of the Attorney General argued the following in their response:
- The trial court did not have jurisdiction to consider the claim because there is no defendant,
- The Florida workers’ compensation framework is constitutional, and
- Workers’ Compensation benefits have always been limited, and a change to benefits is within the Legislative prerogative.
The Attorney General has not announced whether or not the decision will be appealed. If appealed, the case will be heard by the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami. The appeal court can uphold or reverse the ruling. If the appeal court upholds Judge Cueto’s opinion the case would be heard by the Florida Supreme Court.
The appellate court can also “pass” on review of the decision and send the case directly to the high court.
If not appealed, this circuit court opinion has no precedential value for trial courts in the rest of the state.
What do we expect to be the immediate effect of this decision?
It is likely that more negligence lawsuits will be filed by injured employees against their employers in Miami-Dade County. As pointed out in the decision, Florida changed from a contributory negligence state to a comparative negligence state in 1973, which improves an employee’s chance of recovery if suing the employer for negligence.
Since in general there is a four year statute of limitations applicable to legal actions founded on negligence in Florida, there may be instances of workers’ compensation claimants resolving their workers’ compensation claim and then pursuing a tort action against the employer.
What is your reaction to this ruling? As an employer are you concerned about the ruling or do you think it is much ado about nothing?
Sedgwick will continue to update our clients and stay actively involved in monitoring the judicial process and engaging our clients, as appropriate in the legislative process. Watch for additional updates as the ruling passes through the judicial process.
Darrell Brown, Chief Performance Officer