Nearly five years ago, Emma Murray, a nurse in her late 50s, suffered an injury while hoisting a patient at the nursing home where she worked.
Her employer's workers' compensation insurance company denied her claim, chalking up her injury to a pre-existing condition. She hired Port Charlotte lawyer Brian Sutter and won $3,244 in back wages and medical costs.
Murray's case would have garnered little notice, except that it happened about a month after controversial revisions of Florida's workers' compensation went into effect. Sutter has appealed a provision that capped fees for lawyers hired by injured workers, and will argue Emma Murray vs. Mariner Health Care today before the Florida Supreme Court.
The legislation, completed during a special legislative session in 2003, fulfilled its promise to cut the bill that businesses pay for workers' compensation. But it also sharply limited fees for attorneys who fight for injured workers, leaving many workers with few attorneys willing to help them fight for lost wages and medical bills, Sutter said.
Sutter spent about 80 hours preparing Murray's case. His fee? Just $648, or about $8.10 an hour. Mariner's attorneys earned about $16,000, he said.
Sutter said the legislation gives insurers an unfair advantage, since insurers face no cap on attorneys fees. That gives insurers incentive to deny legitimate claims like Murray's, since few lawyers will take on complex and expensive cases for such meager fees.
"If you have a law that works like that, the insurers can do whatever they want," Sutter said.
Tamela Perdue, general council to Associated Industries of Florida, a pro-business lobbying group, disagreed. "I think the law is fine the way it is."
Premiums for workers' compensation have dropped by more than 50 percent since the law passed, she said. Associated Industries led a coalition of business and industry in support of Senate Bill 50A in 2003, she said. The group has also filed a friend of the court brief arguing against Sutter.
"Before this law was passed, Florida had the highest rates for workers' compensation insurance in the country," Perdue said. "Now, we have some of the lowest rates in the country, so businesses stay in business and workers continue to have jobs."
Asjylyn Loder can be reached at [email protected] or