Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Injured on the job? It might get harder in Florida to find a lawyer to take your case

Workers laying concrete blocks for a new home under construction in southern Hillsborough County. Those injured on the job could find it harder to seek court action when they feel they have been wrongly denied care or compensation by their employer's insurer, under bills that could cap attorneys fees in such cases.  [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times (2012)]

Workers laying concrete blocks for a new home under construction in southern Hillsborough County. Those injured on the job could find it harder to seek court action when they feel they have been wrongly denied care or compensation by their employer's insurer, under bills that could cap attorneys fees in such cases. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times (2012)]

Florida is already one of the hardest states for workers seeking treatment or lost wages when injured on the job.

Now lawmakers are trying again to make it more difficult for employees to sue when they have wrongly been denied workers' compensation. Competing House and Senate bills would impose new caps on workers' attorney fees in such disputes, which critics say will discourage lawyers from taking cases.

Backers don't entirely deny the charge.

"What we're trying to do is reduce attorney involvement in the system," said Rep. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican leading the House legislation.

Supporting lawmakers point to a recent spike in premiums charged to businesses for workers' compensation insurance and a forecast for more hikes. They blame a Florida Supreme Court decision overturning prior state restrictions on legal fees businesses must pay when their employees successfully sue for denial of care or lost pay.

Opponents say the legislation is part of an ongoing campaign to dilute workplace protection for employees in the name of cutting insurance rates and boosting business profits.

"The playing field has already been severely tilted against the injured workers," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Fort Lauderdale.

•••

The Supreme Court struck down the prior limits on attorney's fees last year.

Under the 12-year-old law, attorneys for hurt workers could only earn a capped percentage of benefits won in court. In the case the court reviewed, the attorney received $164 for 107 hours of work to win a $822 claim for a hurt worker.

In the year since the court ruling, insurance premiums companies pay to cover workplace injuries have shot up 14.5 percent, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, which advises the state on rate changes.

Burgess said companies already are laying off employees to offset the increase.

"The reality is that workers don't care much about workers' compensation if they don't have a job," he said before a 82-37 floor vote in favor of attorney fee caps last week.

The House bill would reset the cap on workers' attorneys fees at $150 an hour — which trial attorneys say is inadequate for cases that are often complex. The Senate bill would include a $250-an-hour max— an amount opposed by business groups.

In addition, under the House proposal, legislators want to reduce reimbursement medical providers would get in caring for injured workers, something the Senate has so far opposed.

Most workers' compensation claims do not involve attorneys. About 6 percent do, the NCCI estimates, and when that happens, costs triple.

There is no clear state data yet that shows there has been an increase in workers' compensation claims. But the NCCI predicts there will be. Part of the evidence it cites: an increase in Google searches for the term "workers compensation attorney."

While that may sound squishy, Sen. Rob Bradley, a Clay County Republican leading the Senate version of the bill, says this year's rate hike is not.

"The 14.5 percent is real," he said. "Businesses are paying 14.5 percent more for workers' compensation than they paid last year."

•••

Workers' compensation laws date to the labor reforms of the early 1900s under President Theodore Roosevelt.

The basic premise: that workers injured on the job are entitled to treatment and some portion of lost wages paid by their employer. In return, they agree not to sue.

Labor leaders say the problem is that, too often, company insurers refuse to pay legitimate claims. So they end up in courts.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, states across the country began passing changes to their workers' compensation laws in response to business complaints of sharply rising costs.

The 2004 limits placed on legal fees in Florida were part of a series of reforms. They included reducing compensation for people who suffer permanent partial disability and requiring workers to use company-provided doctors to assess their injuries.

"What they have done is decimate the workers' compensation system in Florida for injured workers," said Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO union.

The changes have worked for businesses.

Though Florida has added 1.7 million employees since 2004, the number of workers' compensation petitions has fallen from 127,000 annually to about 67,000, according to the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims.

In 2000, workers compensation policies cost Florida companies $4 for every $100 they paid their workers, according to an Oregon study, the highest rate in the country. Today, those same companies pay $1.66 for every $100 in wages — below the national average of $1.84.

Based on those numbers, if anything, lawmakers need to be doing more to help injured workers, said Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, a former state insurance consumer advocate.

"The injured worker deserves something, something, and they're not getting anything out of this bill," Shaw said.

The Senate proposal awaits a full chamber vote.

•••

The workers' compensation debate represents one of the sharpest splits between the House and Senate in the final days of the session, not to mention among Democrats and Republicans.

An exchange on the House floor last week underscored the divide.

Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, who worked for years at a utility company, blamed most injuries on employees.

"I would submit that 80 percent or more of the employees injured are injured under their own volition, because they are not following safety rules and regulations," he said.

Miami Democrat Robert Ascencio countered. The retired police officer recalled how he got injured on the job and had his claim rejected three times before hiring an attorney.

"If you took care of employees in the first place, there would be no need to sue," he said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. Follow @JeremySWallace

Injured on the job? It might get harder in Florida to find a lawyer to take your case 04/26/17 [Last modified: Thursday, April 27, 2017 2:43pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Hurricane Maria's winds hit 175 mph as it aims at Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands

    Hurricanes

    SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Maria barreled toward Puerto Rico on Tuesday night after wreaking widespread devastation on Dominica and leaving the small Caribbean island virtually incommunicado. …

    A boat lays on its side off the shore of Sainte-Anne on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, early Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, after the passing of Hurricane Maria. [Dominique Chomereau-Lamotte | Associated Press]
  2. Hillsborough School Board approves 2017-18 budget

    K12

    TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday approved a budget of $2.83 billion for the 2017-18 school year.

    Photo illustration. [iStockphoto.com]
  3. All Eyes photo gallery: 7.1 magnitude quake kills at least 79, collapses buildings in Mexico

    World

    A magnitude 7.1 earthquake stunned central Mexico on Tuesday, killing at least 79 people as buildings collapsed in plumes of dust. Thousands fled into the streets in panic, and many stayed to help rescue those trapped. The quake came less than two weeks after another quake left 90 dead in the country's south, and it …

    Rescuers work on a collapsed building on Amsterdam Avenue in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck, Sept. 19, 2017. Dozens have been reported killed across the country, including 42 in the state of Morelos, close to the epicenter of the quake, and at least 20 buildings in Mexico City have collapsed. (Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times) XNYT169
  4. Rays video tribute to ex-manager Joe Maddon upon return with Cubs

    Blogs

    Here is the Rays video tribute to former manager Joe Maddon, who returned to the Trop for the first time on Tuesday with his Cubs team:

  5. After Irma disruption, Miami eager to face Toledo

    College

    LAKE BUENA VISTA — Like thousands of other evacuees, Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz headed north to escape Hurricane Irma with his family, two suitcases and the anxiety of not knowing what would happen to everything he left behind.

    Miami coach Mark Richt watches during a victory over B-CU in the Sept. 2 opener. The Hurricanes haven’t played since.