TALLAHASSEE — In a battle about disability benefits for a seriously injured firefighter, a state appeals court has found part of Florida's workers compensation insurance system unconstitutional — saying it led to the man being left in a "legal twilight zone."
The ruling, issued Thursday by the 1st District Court of Appeal, struck down a law that placed a two-year limit on temporary disability benefits. That limit cut off disability payments in 2011 to St. Petersburg firefighter Bradley Westphal, who was unable to work because of injuries but also couldn't meet criteria to qualify for permanent disability benefits.
Judge Brad Thomas wrote in a 24-page opinion that the two-year limit on temporary benefits is inadequate in such situations and that there is "simply no public necessity, much less an overpowering one, that has been demonstrated to justify such a fundamentally unjust system of redress for injury."
"The natural consequence of such a system of legal redress is potential economic ruination of the injured worker, with all the terrible consequences that this portends for the worker and his or her family,'' wrote Thomas, who was joined by judges Marguerite Davis and Philip Padovano.
The workers-compensation system is designed to serve as a way to provide medical care and other benefits to injured people without going through lawsuits. Florida has highly complex workers-compensation laws that include different types of benefits and limits.
Westphal injured his back and a leg while on duty in December 2009, with the injuries causing nerve damage and requiring spinal surgery, according to the appeals court opinion. He received temporary total disability benefits for two years but could not be determined to have met what is known as "maximum medical improvement" — an important factor in qualifying for permanent total disability benefits.
As a result, Westphal's disability payments ran out in December 2011. His attorney, Jason Fox, said the city agreed in November 2012 that Westphal would get permanent disability benefits — and made them retroactive to September 2012 — but that left about a nine-month income gap.
Lawmakers approved the two-year limit on temporary total disability benefits in 1993. Under Thursday's ruling, the temporary benefits would be available for five years, the same amount of time as before the 1993 law took effect.
During oral arguments last month, Allen Winsor, an attorney for the state, defended the benefits limits and said they have to be viewed within the "broad picture" of the workers compensation insurance system. He said lawmakers approved the limits as a way to reduce costs at a time when businesses struggled to afford insurance.
"They found there was a critical need to reduce costs through enacting this very provision,'' Winsor told the judges.
But the ruling said the limits violated Westphal's constitutional "guarantee that justice will be administered without denial or delay." While the workers-compensation system is designed to head off civil lawsuits, the ruling said it has to provide a reasonable alternative to protect the legal rights of injured people.
"This system of redress (in Westphal's case) does not comport with any notion of natural justice, and its result is repugnant to fundamental fairness, because it relegates a severely injured worker to a legal twilight zone of economic and familial ruin,'' the opinion said.
The judges stopped short of addressing other parts of the workers compensation system, but attorneys who represent workers have long complained about steps the Legislature has taken to reduce insurance costs. Much of the debate has centered on 2003 changes that have led to an overall 56 percent drop in workers compensation insurance rates.
Fox, the attorney for Westphal, said Friday he expects to see more constitutional challenges to workers compensation laws, as he said the "pendulum has swung so far" to placing limits on benefits.