A Jeb Bush era law that limited attorney’s fees in workers compensation cases has been ruled unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday. The Court said that the “fee limits are unconstitutional because they resulted in a system where people can’t find lawyers to represent them at unreasonably low rates” . This law based lawyer fees on a proportion of the total amount of money acquired in a claim, so if an injured worker has a $5,000 claim, lawyers knew they could receive no more than $1,000; thus limiting the incentive to work over 70 hours on any given case when the pay is down to $10 an hour or less. For an injured worker, $5,000 could be enough to help pay bills and get through recovery; for an attorney the percentage of that payment is not sufficient for the work and resources exhausted in a case.
Michael Winer, chair of the Workers Compensation Section of The Florida Bar stated, “People who are injured on the job and stuck in the workers’ comp system lost the ability to pay lawyers. I have had very difficult discussions with a lot of injured workers who had valid claims, and said, ‘Look, the juice here, unfortunately, just isn’t worth the squeeze. I might have to spend 50 to 70 hours on your case” . For example, the case that brought this decision into light involves a Miami man who suffered head, neck and shoulder injuries as a result of working for Next Door Company, a maker of doors and door frames in Miami. Marvin Castellanos, the injured worker, walked away with $822.70. His lawyer, who worked on the case for 107 hours required a fee of $36,817.50; however, he received only $164.54 or the equivalent of $1.53 per hour under the fee system approved by the Bush legislation.
Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente held that the law violates workers’ due process rights under the state and U.S. Constitutions as it prevents challenges to the “reasonableness” of legal fees in workers’ compensation cases. She wrote, “Without the likelihood of an adequate attorney’s fee award, there is little disincentive for carrier to deny benefits or to raise multiple defenses, as was done here. Virtually since its inception, the right of a claimant to obtain a reasonable prevailing party attorney’s fee has been central to the workers’ compensation law.”
Consequently, this law also led insurance carriers to deny legitimate workers comp claims, knowing that these individuals wouldn’t be able to find an attorney who would fight the decision.
Why Was The Law Enacted?
Companies and business groups have come out to defend the law as a necessary regulatory practice to ensure workers’ compensation costs do not exceed feasible standards for a claimant. The president of Florida Justice Reform Institute, a group created by the Florida Chamber of Commerce stated, “Most people have probably forgotten how runaway workers’ compensation costs nearly caused Florida’s economy to seize up and stop before the 2003 reforms. Well, now we’re about to remember.” The rising costs of workers’ compensation insurance was making it unaffordable and in some cases unattainable for businesses.
However, while limiting attorney’s fees was an important factor in reducing workers’ compensation rates, it came at the expense of injured workers and attorneys who could not afford to help the claimants. The level of impact it will have on workers compensation is expected to be substantial—yet–there is legislative power to make sure there is proper compensation between businesses, attorneys’ fees and claimants.
The Office of Insurance Regulation, run by Kevin McCarty said, “A legislative remedy will be required to prevent significant increases in rates, and we look forward to working with all parties affected to bring about a sensible solution. The sky is not falling” .
While businesses may think this is threatening to their improving climate and exponential growth, the bottom line is that the expulsion of this law allows attorneys to be paid fairly and justly, according to the resources and time spent on a case. It gives workers’ the motivation to file a claim when necessary due to an injury when working on the job. It also makes insurance companies change their “handling practices and start prompting paying meritorious claims from injured workers so they can get the care they need, get back to work and support their families,” as said by Debra Henley, executive director of the Florida Justice Association .
Dolman Law Group
Having an experienced attorney work for your claim is essential to gaining compensation needed to cover lost income, medical bills, family costs, etc. This decision by the Florida Supreme Court–while still being looked over by Rick Scott–is important for personal injury and workers compensation lawyers because they can sufficiently pursue claims made by workers. While workers always have the right to handle their worker’s compensation cases on their own, including settlement negotiations, insurers often try to take advantage of unrepresented parties to get them to accept offers that are far too low or they even deny claims. The dismissal of this law will help put a stop to some of these erroneous practices. At the same time, it’s important to have an experienced professional look over the complex details to ensure just compensation.
At Dolman Law Group, we understand that dealing with a work-related injury or illness is never easy. For this reason, our legal team always strives to make the workers’ compensation process as easy and stress-free as possible for you and your family. We have extensive knowledge of the Florida workers compensation process and are up to date with new legislation and decisions that involves these specific claims. Let us help you get the compensation you deserve. Our number is (727) 451-6900.
Dolman Law Group
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765