Sunset falls over the Florida Supreme Court building (Phil Sears)
Florida Supreme Court justices tried to untangle a closely watched case dealing with the constitutionality of a law that limited workers’ compensation benefits for a firefighter injured on the job.
The case stemming from 2009 injuries suffered by St. Petersburg firefighter Bradley Westphal delves into the state’s complicated workers’ compensation system—and includes the somewhat-unusual legal circumstance of both sides opposing a decision by the First District Court of Appeal.
Westphal, who underwent one surgery on his leg and two on his back because of the injuries, was paid what is known in the workers’ compensation world as “temporary total disability” benefits for two years. State law limits such payments to that time period.
But when Westphal sought to receive permanent total disability benefits, a judge ruled that the request was premature. That created a gap until Westphal could get permanent benefits several months later and prompted the continuing legal fight, with Westphal’s attorneys arguing that the two-year limit on temporary benefits is unconstitutional.
“The fact of the matter is 104 weeks is inadequate,” Westphal attorney Richard Sicking told justices Thursday, using weeks instead of years.
Justice Peggy Quince agreed Thursday that might be inadequate when someone is totally disabled. “But how does the fact it is inadequate make this statute unconstitutional?” she asked.
A short time later, Justice Barbara Pariente asked a similar question: “What takes it from ‘it’s inadequate’ to ‘it’s unconstitutional?’ ” she asked.
The case has drawn widespread attention from business groups, trial lawyers and labor unions. Among the groups signing onto briefs in the case were Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Retail Federation, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Florida Justice Association, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the Florida Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Firefighters.
The courtroom was full Thursday with people in the audience ranging from Associated Industries’ general counsel to three men wearing yellow International Association of Firefighters T-shirts. Also, a defendant in the case is the city of St. Petersburg, which is self-insured.
Broadly, Florida’s workers’ compensation system is designed to serve as a way to provide medical care and other benefits to injured people without going through lawsuits. But the system is complex, with different types of benefits and limits — and in the past has touched off fierce legislative battles, as businesses look to hold down insurance costs and workers’ groups seek to maintain benefits.
State Solicitor General Allen Winsor urged the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the law involved in Westphal’s case. He said workers’ compensation is a “system that is filled with limitations,” but the benefit of the system is it provides for workers when they are injured.
Sicking, however, said the law violates the constitutional right of “access to courts.” That stems, at least in part, from arguments about workers not receiving adequate benefits but also being constrained legally because of the design of the workers’ compensation system.
Justices typically take months to rule in such cases. But they also are faced in the Westphal case with a decision from the First District Court of Appeal that both sides want them to reject.
Initially, a three-judge panel of the appeals court struck down the law on constitutional grounds. But in September 2013, the full appeals court scuttled that decision and said it could rule in favor of Westphal without having to resolve the constitutional issue.
Eight of the appeals-court judges joined the majority opinion, while three judges dissented fully and two others dissented in part.
“Everybody’s going like this,” Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis said, gesturing with his fingers in different directions as he described the appeals court opinions.