Babies and Bath Water

04.07.2016

By JOAN E. COLLIER

Here in Florida, the state Supreme Court is currently hearing Daniel Stahl v. Hialeah Hospital. The case is well known throughout Florida, but for others, here’s a recap, courtesy of the Florida law firm Colodny Fass.

[Florida passed a massive workers’ compensation reform package in 2003.]

“In December 2003, two months after the reforms took effect, Stahl suffered a lower back while working as a nurse at Hialeah Hospital. He initially filed suit in Circuit Court but a judge dismissed his claim. Stahl, who suffered a seven-percent permanent disability, appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal, which upheld the lower court ruling and also admonished Stahl.

“At that point, Stahl entered the workers' compensation system and appealed several determinations that were made against him, PoliticoFlorida.com explained.

“One of the appeals to the First District Court of Appeal involved a determination that he be required to pay a $10 co-payment for his physician visits because he was considered to have reached ‘maximum medical improvement.’

“The workers' compensation judge had also determined Stahl could not be paid for permanent partial total disability because the benefit was eliminated from the law in 2003.

“The appeals court ruled against Stahl, saying the co-payments were legal based on a ‘rational review’ of Florida's workers' compensation law.

“Stahl's attorneys asked the Florida Supreme Court to consider the case, arguing the appellate court should not have applied a ‘rational review’ standard, but rather a tougher ‘strict scrutiny’ standard because the workers' compensation system denies the injured worker access to the courts and a jury trial.

“Attorneys for Hialeah Hospital unsuccessfully argued that the Florida Supreme Court should not review the case because it isn't a matter of great public importance and there was no conflict between appellate courts.”

OK. That’s basically where we are. The arguments from the various stakeholders are falling into the expected boxes. The Property Casualty Insurance Association of America probably speaks for most of the “leave it alone side” with its statement: “PCI and our members believe that an adverse decision in this case, in which the plaintiffs seek to weaken or eliminate the exclusive remedy provision of Florida’s workers compensation system, could significantly destabilize Florida’s business environment.”

Friends of the Court briefs have been plentiful. Among those trying to help out the respondents have been the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the American Association of Independent Claims Professionals, and Attorney General Pam Bondi.

On the other side are such groups as the Florida Professional Firefighters, the Florida Justice Association, and a number of police associations.

Plaintiff attorneys and their constituents obviously are hoping that the justices find in their favor—in essence, that they throw the baby out with the bathwater, and start over.

For those who scoff at the notion of this challenge, some cautionary words.

Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy in New Mexico.

Martinez v. Lawhon in Tennessee.

Coates v. Fallin in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Commission’s ruling on opt-out.

Yes, I know that none of those cases are directly on point. However, they all demonstrate the current popularity of constitutional challenges to various workers’ compensation systems. These arguments are not going quietly into the night. If we want to save the baby, we better pay attention to the turmoil in the water.

PS: Stahl is just one of three challenges to Florida's workers’ compensation system currently pending in the court. The justices heard oral arguments in Castellanos v. Next Door Company, which addresses attorneys' fees restrictions in the law, in November 2014. Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, which deals with maximum medical improvement and permanent and total disability benefits, was heard in June 2014. No ruling has been issued in either case.

(Read more Work Comp Nation blogs here.)

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