Primarily because of the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in April that overturned a key component in the law, questions abound about workers’ compensation in Florida. But even with these changes, many parts of the system remain substantially the same.
State workers’ compensation laws, like the one in Florida, go back about 100 years to a time when industrialization was changing the American economy. Yet, while factories hummed to provide manufactured goods to American consumers flush with optimism after the end of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, these factories were almost entirely unregulated and workplace injuries were common. In this environment, workers and management conceived of the so-called Grand Bargain: Injured workers surrendered their right to sue for damages in court, and in return, management agreed to provide no-fault insurance that compensated these victims for their economic losses.
What Effect Does Castellanos v. Next Door Company Have on Benefits?
Before Castellanos, workers’ compensation attorneys received a percentage of benefits awarded regardless of the amount of time they spent on the case. In this particular instance, a hard-working attorney spent over 107 hours on a client’s case. While the insurance company’s lawyers were well-paid for their unsuccessful effort to fight the compensation, the injured worker’s attorney received about $1.50 per hour for his services. No one can survive on those wages.
The Supreme Court got right to the heart of the matter. “It is undeniable that without the right to an attorney with a reasonable fee, the workers’ compensation law can no longer ‘assure the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker,’” wrote Justice Barbara Pariente. If any business of any character, from the corner gas station to an international bank, does not give its workers a decent wage, that business is doomed. Because workers’ compensation attorneys are now entitled to a reasonable fee, there will be more lawyers in the system, the claims will move faster, and injured workers will receive more benefits.
What Injuries are Covered?
Under the law, workers must be injured “in the course of employment.” That definition encompasses two basic kinds of injuries:
- Occupational Disease: Injuries like repetitive trauma, joint pain, back pain, occupational exposure and respiratory distress occur over the course of more than one work shift.
- Trauma Injury: Falls, motor vehicle crashes, and other injuries that occur suddenly and without warning fall into this category.
Timing is the second eligibility prong because injured workers must report their injuries in writing within 30 days. Courts almost never accept excuses or grant extensions, so this deadline is critical. In the case of an occupational disease, the clock normally starts ticking as soon as the injured victim knows, or should know, that the carpal tunnel syndrome or whatever occupational disease is work-related. Similarly, there is a two-year statute of limitations.
What Benefits are Available?
Benefits generally come in two form, medical benefits and indemnity (wage loss).
Medical care should be provided by your employer through an authorized physician. Workers are eligible for medical care as long as the care is needed because the major contributing cause for the need for treatment is the workplace accident and the care is medically necessary.
As for lost wages, victims are typically entitled to two-thirds of their average weekly wage for a maximum 260 weeks (depending on the law that controls on the date of your accident). Workers’ compensation benefits are not taxable, and most victims remain eligible for Social Security and other government benefits during their recovery time, although the benefits may be reduced in a few cases. Victims who sustain a permanent injury and are either unable to work at all or must find alternative employment typically receive a lump-sum payment based on the nature and extent of the disability or wrongful death.
What is the Process?
Every case is different, and many cases settle out-of-court at some point, but they all follow the same general procedure. The first step is filing a claim for benefits which you feel that you are entitled to. The document that is filed is referred to as a Petition for Benefits. The Employer and their Insurance Company have to respond to this request within 30 days. If you are displeased with their response, the claim proceeds to the next step which is a Mediation Conference. This is a confidential meeting where the case is discussed prior to being sent to a Judge for trial. This conference, which must occur within 130 days of the original petition’s filing, normally includes the victim, the insurance company’s lawyer, and the victim’s lawyer. The next step is a pretrial hearing that’s followed by a final hearing. That decision can also be appealed to the First District Court of Appeals.
To take the first step towards fair compensation for your workplace injury, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen & Frankel today.