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Protecting Florida’s Injured Workers

Article provided by Law Office of William M. Julien, P.A.  | June 2009

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Workers’ compensation laws provide legal protections for injured workers, ensuring that injured workers are fairly compensated for work-related injuries. Unfortunately, the Florida Legislature has recently passed legislation that undermines these legal protections.

The proposed law aims to reduce the costs of workers’ compensation in Florida by limiting attorneys’ fees available for those representing injured workers. As a practical matter, this will severely limit the ability of injured workers to obtain legal counsel, making it nearly impossible for workers to enforce their legally protected rights.

The Current Situation in Florida

Understanding the current situation requires an appreciation of the recent history of workers compensation. In 2003, the Florida Legislature passed laws limiting attorneys’ fees in workers compensation cases to a “reasonable” amount, while simultaneously outlining a fee schedule based on the amount an injured worker ultimately received in benefits. Under this fee schedule, the amount of time an attorney devoted to a case is irrelevant; the only consideration is the ultimate value of the case when it is resolved.

In late 2008, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the statutory cap in Murray v. Mariner Health Inc. In this case, a workers’ compensation attorney devoted 80 hours to a case, which ultimately resulted in an award of approximately $3,200 in benefits for an injured worker. Under the statutory fee schedule, the attorney presenting the case was entitled to 20 percent of the benefits secured, which translated to a fee of about $8 per hour. In comparison, the attorneys for the employer and insurance company seeking to deny benefits made $125 per hour and spent 135 hours on the case. The Court determined that an attorney’s fees should be guided by the term “reasonable,” rather than by the strict fee structure outlined.

On the last day of the 2009 traditional legislative session, the Florida Legislature passed a bill in direct response to the Supreme Court ruling. The bill removes the term “reasonable” and makes it clear that attorneys’ fees are to be determined using the statutory formula – the same formula that lead to incredible inconsistencies in Murray. If Governor Charlie Crist does not veto the bill, it will become effective July 1, 2009.

The Problems With This Legislation

The problems with this legislation are immense. Largely, the matter has been framed in the media as a fight between Florida trial attorneys and Florida business owners. Unfortunately, this framing takes the focus away from those who will be truly harmed by the bill: Florida workers.

This bill seriously undermines the ability of injured workers to obtain legal representation in most workers’ compensation matters. Although seriously injured workers may still be able to work with lawyers because of the relatively larger size of their awards, most injured people will be required to handle their claims alone. Lawyers who can only make $8 per hour will not be able to stay in practice very long; this is simply not a financially viable arrangement.

Presuming that workers are able to secure representation, the quality of representation will be compromised. Attorneys representing workers have long been required to work more efficiently than those representing insurance companies; the Murray case provides but one example of these differences. However, even with incredible efficiency, preparing a legal claim takes time. If attorneys are only able to obtain minimal compensation for their work, economic reality dictates that they will be unable to devote the necessary time to each case.

Another serious problem with this legislation is that it only limits the compensation for attorneys on one side of the workers’ compensation dispute. Employers and insurance companies are not restricted in any way when determining how much to pay their attorneys or how many hours attorneys can devote to each claim. Justice is best served through equal preparation; restricting the preparation of one side without similar restrictions for the other side virtually ensures that justice will not prevail.

Ultimately, this legislation gives employers license to deny workers’ compensation claims at will, without regard for their true merit. Injured workers will have little recourse, as they will be unable to obtain legal representation. Businesses will be allowed to shirk their workers’ compensation responsibilities to employees, not providing fair compensation for workers injured on the job.

Business owners supporting this legislation allege that greedy trial lawyers have prompted the need for government intervention. In the absence of a cap on attorney fees, they argue, the costs of workers’ compensation will keep business in Florida from thriving.

Even assuming that workers’ compensation payments are a significant cost of operation, the development of Florida businesses should not come at the expense of injured Florida employees. The proposed law hurts Florida workers, and in turn, hurts Florida. Governor Crist should protect workers where the legislature has not by vetoing this bill.