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

The Florida Legislature is considering changes to workers’ compensation laws that might make it more difficult for workers who are injured on the job to sue if their claims are denied.
The Florida Legislature is considering changes to workers’ compensation laws that might make it more difficult for workers who are injured on the job to sue if their claims are denied. Miami Herald photo illustration

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.

Supreme Court decision

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.”

Long-standing laws

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.

Legislators divided

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 saws 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

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