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Romano: Disabled St. Petersburg firefighter in middle of landmark case

Published Jun. 9, 2014

It's fair to say that it never should have gotten this far.

Not to the point where attorneys in the hallways of the state Supreme Court are asking to pose for pictures with the suddenly famous disabled firefighter from St. Petersburg.

And not to the point where legal fees completely dwarf the $30,000 or so that an attorney says the original settlement would have required.

And certainly not to the point where a national insurance organization estimated that an appeals court ruling, later overturned, would have increased workers' compensation costs throughout Florida by $65 million annually.

All because attorneys for the city of St. Petersburg fought an injured firefighter's disability benefits claim.

"This ruling could have an impact on all classes of injuries, all employers, all insurance companies," said attorney Jason Fox of Carlson, Meissner, Hart & Hayslett. "It can have an overwhelming effect … or it can stay status quo."

As state Supreme Court justices heard the case of disabled firefighter Brad Westphal last week, it was hard not to recall how unnecessary the entire episode has become.

If you're not familiar with the case, Westphal suffered a catastrophic back injury while moving furniture in a house fire in St. Petersburg in 2009.

Three surgeries left him in excruciating pain, wearing a cumbersome back brace and without any feeling whatsoever in his left leg. When temporary disability benefits ran out after 104 weeks — which is state law — Westphal found himself in a financial crisis.

Doctors would not clear him to return to work but also would not declare that he was eligible for permanent disability benefits. Westphal was caught in a coverage gap, and the city was not exactly sympathetic to his difficulties.

You can argue whether it was more heartless or incompetent — I say it's 50-50 — but rather than offer Westphal additional benefits, the city chose to go to court and jeopardize a business-friendly workers' comp law.

"At some point, one of the (city) attorneys said they never thought I'd take it this far," Westphal said. "They could have been over and done with it long ago."

The Supreme Court case is not about money for Westphal. He was eventually ruled permanently disabled and now receives full benefits.

Instead, the case focuses on whether the 104 weeks of temporary benefits is constitutional. An appeals court ruled it was unconstitutional last year — leading to great consternation in the state's business and insurance communities — before reversing itself.

Westphal's attorneys argue that when Florida residents gave up certain rights to seek compensation from government agencies, the temporary benefits limit was 350 weeks.

The state Legislature later reduced it to 104 weeks, among the nation's shortest.

"At one point, state voters said this is a fair tradeoff," Fox said. "Since then, it's been death by 1,000 cuts. The Legislature has slowly chiseled away all those benefits."

During oral arguments, justices seemed skeptical that the 104-week law was unconstitutional but also incredulous that an injured city worker could be left in a financial jam.

Meanwhile, Westphal, who has since had a fourth surgery to alleviate pain, said it was surreal to find himself in a potentially historic case.

"These lawyers would come up to me and tell me I was like Cher or Madonna," he said. "In their world, I was famous enough to have one name. I was the 'Westphal case.' "

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