Fla. Supreme Court Tosses Disability Benefit Limit

     TALLAHASSEE (CN) — A Florida workers’ compensation statute that cuts off benefits for totally disabled individuals after two years is unconstitutional, a divided state Supreme Court ruled.
     The 2009 statute, which pertains to disabled individuals who have not reached maximum medical improvement, will be amended to allow benefits to continue for up to five years.
     Bradley Westphal — a firefighter who was disabled by a back injury in 2009 — was originally granted an extension of benefits by Florida’s First District Court of Appeals.
     The panel that heard Westphal’s case ruled the two-year limitation — the shortest in the United States — unconstitutional, but an en banc decision by the same court overturned the ruling.
     Justice Barbara Pariente authored the opinion for the court majority, and wrote that the current 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.”
     Because the doctors who performed Westphal’s spinal fusion surgery did not determine he had reached “maximum medical improvement,” he was ineligible for permanent disability benefits after the statutory two-year term.
     Pariente described the en banc decision as an “impermissible judicial rewrite of the Legislature’s plainly written statute,” which requires the determination of an injured worker’s ” ‘permanent impairment’ as opposed to permanent disability” at the conclusion of the two-year period.
     “As applied to Westphal,” she continued, “the current workers’ compensation statutory scheme does not just reduce the amount of benefits he would receive … but in fact completely cuts off his ability to receive any disability benefits at all.”
     Pariente’s opinion expounded on the “dramatic” shift in injured workers’ rights in the State of Florida since 1968, when such workers were entitled to 350 weeks of temporary disability benefits.
     “Whereas almost seven years or even five years post-accident should be a reasonable period for an injured worker to achieve maximum medical improvement,” she wrote, “clearly two years is not for the most severely injured of workers, like Westphal, who might be in need of multiple surgical interventions.”
     “We conclude that the 104-week limitation on temporary total disability benefits … does not provide a ‘reasonable alternative’ to tort litigation,” she continued, “[and] under the current statute, workers such as Westphal are denied their constitutional right of access to the courts.”
     Pariente concluded that “the proper remedy is the revival of the pre-1994 statute that provided for a limitation of 260 weeks of temporary total disability benefits.”
     Although a concurring opinion written by Justice R. Fred Lewis found the extension inadequate as a remedy, Justice Pariente defended the court’s position.
     “We previously held that the pre-1994 statute’s limitation of 260 weeks ‘passes constitutional muster’ because it ‘remains a reasonable alternative to tort litigation,'” she wrote, “[And] although the length of time available for the administration of … benefits … does not involve line drawing, the difference between a period of only two years (104 weeks) and five years (260 weeks) is significant.”
     Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented from the majority, with Justice Canady authoring an opinion. “The State argues persuasively that ‘today’s workers’ compensation system allowed Westphal substantially greater temporary total disability benefits than any 1968 statutory right provided,'” he wrote, “[and] the decision to substantially increase weekly compensation for temporary total disability and to reduce the number of weeks that such benefits are paid is a trade-off that is a matter of policy within the province of the Legislature.”

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