When Florida workers are injured on the job but denied compensation, they have the right to pursue a challenge. But a bill scheduled to be heard by the Florida House today would make it more difficult for injured workers to hire a lawyer.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce says it is vital that lawmakers pass legislation, HB 903 and SB 2072, to set aside a 2008 Florida Supreme Court ruling that released attorney fees from statutory caps. Otherwise, the chamber claims workers' compensation insurance rates could rise sharply, repeating the era when Florida had some of the highest rates in the nation. But that alarm is premature. Employers will actually see lower rates this year than last. And the proposed legislation would undermine workers' rights.
In reforming the workers' compensation system in 2003, Florida lawmakers wrote a strict fee schedule for the workers' attorneys, hoping to eliminate judges' discretion. Attorneys for injured workers who won benefits received the equivalent of 20 percent of the first $5,000 of compensation awarded, 15 percent of the next $5,000, and so forth. Since then, workers' compensation insurance rates have dropped more than 60 percent.
But last October, the Florida Supreme Court ruled, 5-0, that the law promised attorneys for successful claimants "reasonable" fees. The justices said that, in light of the statute's express language, attorney fee awards could be adjusted — up or down — if equity required it.
The court's decision came in Murray vs. Mariner Health. Nursing assistant Emma Murray was injured while lifting a patient and later had a hysterectomy. She was initially denied benefits, but on appeal won $3,244 in compensation. Under the statutory fee schedule, her attorney would have been awarded $648 — 20 percent of the value of the benefits won. That meant $8 an hour for the 80 hours he spent on the case. Meanwhile the insurance carrier paid its counsel $16,050.
The state's high court awarded Murray's attorney $16,000 as a reasonable fee. The ruling did not toss away all caps on attorney fees; rather it established an escape valve to prevent anomalous and patently unfair situations. Since 2003, the state's trial lawyers say injured workers have had an increasingly difficult time finding counsel to represent them. With the court's ruling, employees with valid injury claims should have a better chance of finding an attorney who will help them secure medical benefits and lost wages.
Plus, there is no evidence yet that the court's ruling will result in a cascade of outsized attorney fees and illegitimate claims. So far, a rate increase of only 6.4 percent was approved by Kevin McCarty, the state's insurance commissioner, on estimates of Murray's projected costs. But an 18.6 percent reduction was also approved for this year, meaning employers are enjoying a net decrease in workers' compensation insurance rates.
The Legislature should wait and see how the Murray ruling is implemented over time. It may be that fees won't spin out of control and frivolous claims won't increase but that workers with valid claims will have an easier time collecting what they're entitled to. That would be the best outcome for workers and employers.