Florida Court finds Workers' Compensation Statute Unconstitutional

by FordHarrison

Executive Summary:  Circuit Judge Jorge E. Cueto of the 11th Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade County, Florida has found that Section 440.11 of Florida's Workers' Compensation Act (the "Act"), which makes the Act the "exclusive" remedy available to injured workers, their spouses, children and their estates for injuries or death on the job, is unconstitutional because it does not provide adequate medical care for injured workers or dollars to replace lost wages for injured workers.  In striking down the exclusive remedy provision of the Act, the court held that the 2003 amendments to the Act, which removed compensation for partial loss of wage earning capacity, made the Act an inadequate exclusive replacement remedy in place of common law tort claims as required by the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution or by the Florida Constitution.

Background:  Padgett, an injured worker residing in Florida, along with other petitioners (Florida Workers' Advocates and Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group) sought a declaration from the court as to whether workers' compensation as an injured worker's exclusive remedy is constitutional in exchange for a tort action. The court held that Padgett, as one of thousands of similarly situated injured workers in Florida, had standing even though the issue as to the original plaintiff had become moot by the withdrawal of the employer's affirmative defense of workers' compensation immunity, because the court was "empowered" and "obligated" to decide a constitutional issue that is capable of repetition in the future but might evade review.

The Decision:  The court found that the U.S. Supreme Court requires workers' compensation benefits to be "significant" if workers' compensation as the "exclusive" remedy is to pass muster under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Due Process).  The court also noted that in De Ayala v. Florida Farm Bureau Casualty Co., 543 So.2d 204 (Fla. 1989), the Florida Supreme Court held that Florida's workers have a "fundamental right" to workers' compensation based on the Florida Constitution (Art. 1, § 2), which provides individuals with the right "to be rewarded for industry." Statutes are subject to strict scrutiny if they impinge upon fundamental rights.

The court also noted that the Florida Supreme Court has previously held that the legislature lacks the power to repeal a category of benefits that were available under the Act when the Florida Constitution was adopted in 1968 without providing for a reasonable replacement. Additionally, in Martines v. Scanlan. 582 So. 2d 1167, Fn. 4, (Fla. 1991), the Florida Supreme Court held that to be constitutional, a workers' compensation act "had to provide some level of permanent partial disability benefit." Furthermore, in explaining the purpose of having a workers' compensation act, the Florida Supreme Court stated, "the employer who benefits or profits from an employee's labor must relieve society of the consequences of a broken body, a diminished income, an outlay for medical and other care."

The court found that in 1968 when lawmakers first amended the Act to make the workers' compensation system the "exclusive" legal remedy when an employee is injured on the job, the Act provided full medical care benefits and some indemnity benefit for either permanent partial disability (also known as a partial loss of wage earning capacity) or permanent impairment to the body as a whole. The court noted, however, that since 1968 the state legislature has repealed numerous classes of benefits without replacing any of them with equivalent benefits.  Specifically, since the 2003 amendments to the Act (effective October 1, 2003), the Act has not provided full medical care or any compensation for partial loss of wage earning capacity.  (§440.15, 440.13, Fla. Stat. 2003.) The court found that with the October 2003 amendment of the Act, the "last vestige of compensation for partial loss of wage earning capacity was repealed" and no reasonable alternative was put in its place. 

Comparing the benefits available to an injured employee under the Act in 1968 versus those currently available, the court noted that in 1968 an injured worker could get 350 weeks of temporary total disability benefits and five years of temporary partial disability benefits, a total of 12 years versus the two-year maximum allowed after the October 2003 amendments.  Additionally, injured workers now receive permanent impairment benefits pursuant to the Florida impairment guidelines and nothing else unless the employee is permanently and totally disabled, and even though benefits end either at age 75 or after five years of payments, whichever is greater.  However, permanent and total disability was a lifetime benefit in 1968.

Accordingly, the court found that "[a]s a matter of law, Chapter 440, effective October 1, 2003, is facially unconstitutional as long as it contains §440.11 as an exclusive replacement remedy" because it "is no longer an adequate exclusive replacement remedy in place of common law tort as required by the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution or by the Florida Constitution."  The court held that "[e]very injury is capable of producing a partial loss of wage earning capacity, so every injured worker must have the option of accepting workers' compensation benefits or choosing to sue in tort."

Employers' Bottom Line:  The decision will almost certainly be appealed. Additionally, it is only considered persuasive (not mandatory) authority outside of the 11th Judicial Circuit (Miami-Dade County) at this time.  However, employers (especially those in Miami-Dade County) should expect that injured workers will appeal adverse rulings from judges in workers' compensation claims cases.  In addition, it is likely that some injured workers will seek to bring tort actions against their employers based on this decision.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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