TALLAHASSEE — Big business scored a victory Tuesday when a Florida House panel voted to keep workers' compensation costs down.
A bill that would restore limits on attorney fees for injured employees who are wrongly denied claims passed in a 14-4 vote.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce and other lobbies for large and small businesses have pressed for the bill. A Florida Supreme Court ruling in October upended the 2003 state law limiting fees — sending shudders through businesses that have enjoyed a steep drop in insurance rates.
Without the limits, insurers intend to raise rates. That concern prompted Gov. Charlie Crist to give his nod, too. "I like less expensive insurance every day," Crist said Tuesday.
But trial lawyers and unions say the proposed changes will be unfair to workers who are hurt, and help companies that can spend more on lawyers — raising constitutional problems. With limits on fees, fewer attorneys are willing to take cases, and injured workers' access to courts is cut when insurers deny payments, the trial attorneys and unions say.
Since lawmakers passed the 2003 law, rates have dropped 60 percent. However, an insurance group plans to raise rates 6.4 percent this spring — and perhaps more later — after the October court ruling, unless lawmakers cap fees.
"There is no crisis in rates," said trial lawyer Paul Anderson, noting the declining rates. "It's a wish list."
While the bill by Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, nears full House approval, it faces a fight in the Senate, which has been more friendly to trial lawyers. The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Garrett Richter, chairman of the banking and insurance panel, is awaiting its first hearing.
The debate focuses on the Supreme Court's ruling in October that lawyers must receive "reasonable fees." The Port Charlotte attorney for an injured nurse was initially awarded $685 after 80 hours of work. The court ruling reset his fees to $16,000.
Flores and Richter, a Naples Republican, want to remove the requirement that fees are "reasonable" and keep just the limits, restoring the previous system.
"A few years ago … Florida's worker compensation system was in a crisis," said Tami Perdue, a lawyer and lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida. She said the court ruling puts Florida "on the verge of thrusting that system back into crisis."
Trial lawyers offered to give up fee payments based on hourly rates for a promise of a percentage of a worker's award, Anderson said. But legislation by Flores to do that was pulled last week over warnings from business and insurance groups that it would raise rates and attorney fees. An attempt by another legislator to pass the trial lawyers' plan failed Tuesday, too.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.