Florida Supreme Court Ends Attorney Fee Caps on Workers’ Compensation

The business and insurance industries were dealt a blow recently by the Florida Supreme Court, which voted 5-2 in favor of a workers’ compensation plaintiff who alleged the state’s attorney fee caps were unconstitutional. gavel2

This is a victory for injured workers in Florida, many of whom found it hard to find an attorney to represent them in their workers’ compensation cases due to the statutory caps on fees.

Business and insurance groups immediately complained there would be an “avalanche” of claims filed against Florida employers as a result of the ruling. But let’s put into perspective what was really at stake here: Workers, who through no fault of their own, had been injured on the job and their employer/ insurer were refusing to pay for basic medical care and a portion of lost wages. These individuals are simply trying to secure basic compensation, but they are up against well-lawyered businesses and insurance firms. Meanwhile, the worker is restricted in how much and in how their own attorney may be paid. Under the previous cap, plaintiff’s attorney in Catellanos v. Next Door Company was paid $1.53 an hour for more than 100 hours of legal work — all of which a judge deemed reasonably necessary to winning the case. 

The only way businesses or insurers are made to pay is if they lose the case. That is, the court determines the worker was rightfully owed workers’ compensation benefits in the first place and companies denied them.

Let’s also bear in mind: Almost all employees in Florida are entitled to workers’ compensation and the whole point of the system is to avoid litigation. Workers have the benefit of a no-fault system that allows them a relatively quick turnaround for compensation on work-related injuries and employers get to avoid costly litigation. But because of the evolution of the laws in recent years, the scales have become unfairly tipped toward the employers.

When an employer/ insurer knows workers do not have access to adequate legal support, they are less likely to agree to pay workers’ compensation benefits they know are rightly owed — especially when the injuries in question are severe.

So that takes us back to the Castellanos case, in which the Florida Supreme Court ruled the mandatory attorney fee schedule for workers’ compensation cases is unconstitutional under the constitutions of both Florida and the U.S. government. The state high court noted that while the legislature has expressed the intent for the workers’ compensation system to deliver benefits quickly and efficiently, the reality of the matter is that the system is increasingly complex — to the detriment of the worker — and employees depend on assistance from an experienced Florida workers’ compensation lawyer to help them navigate through the thicket.

The court noted that just a few of the changes that make workers’ compensation claims difficult if not impossible without a lawyer:

  • The elimination of the provision in the law that indicated cases should be liberally construed in favor of the worker (F.S. 440.015);
  • Reductions in the duration of temporary benefits;
  • An extensive fraud and penalty provision;
  • A heightened standard of “major contributing cause” that now applies to most cases;
  • The elimination of an opt-out provision;
  • The addition of an offer of settlement provision that allows only the employer — but not the worker — to make an offer to settle.

Plaintiff had been injured in the course of employment and when he was denied benefits, filed a workers’ compensation claim with the help of an attorney. The attorney successfully refuted a number of the defenses raised by the employer and the insurance carrier and ultimately prevailed. However, workers’ compensation attorney fees are contingent not only on the success of the case but the size of the award. Here, that meant the attorney was entitled to just $1.53 an hour. This was under the scheme of what the legislature had deemed “reasonable,” and there was no mechanism for refutation.

The right of a claimant to obtain reasonable attorney’s fees when they win is an essential feature of workers’ compensation law and has been since 1941. The court held the irrebuttable presumption that a certain fee is reasonable is unconstitutional.

Even if the ruling results in a higher number of workers’ compensation claims, it would only be because they were artificially low to begin with. What this ruling does is even the playing field.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Catellanos v. Next Door Company , April 28, 2016, Florida Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Rish v. Simao — Low-Speed Car Accident Lawsuit, March 26, 2016, Miami Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog