Florida Judge Holds Workers Compensation Law Unconstitutional

Yesterday a Miami, Florida Circuit Court Judge held that Florida’s worker’s compensation scheme is unconstitutional under both the federal and Florida constitutions. This court opinion is an important step forward in ensuring that injured workers in Florida get fair and adequate compensation and medical care. Essentially, the Circuit Court held that the worker’s compensation system is no longer an adequate remedy for injured workers and is therefore unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process, and the Florida Constitution’s guarantee to access to courts.

What is worker’s compensation?

The Florida worker’s compensation law has been the “exclusive remedy” for workers injured on the job since 1935. This means that if an employee is hurt on the job he can’t sue his employer in court, but must instead file a claim for worker’s compensation benefits. All non-construction-related employers with more than four employees are required to carry worker’s compensation insurance. Businesses in the construction industry are required to carry worker’s compensation insurance if they have at least one employee. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as if the employee is injured through the employer’s gross negligence, or if the employer doesn’t carry worker’s compensation insurance.

The idea behind the worker’s compensation law was to give employees an easy way to get medical treatment and compensation for workplace injuries without having to go through the court system. In exchange for giving up their right to sue their employers (i.e. it becoming the “exclusive remedy”), workers were supposed to get an adequate substitute for what they court have gotten in court – payment for medical treatment and lost wages. The worker’s compensation law was supposed to cut costs and streamline the process for both workers and employers / insurers.

So why did the Court actually say worker’s compensation was unconstitutional?

The Court’s ruling has to do with worker’s compensation being the “exclusive remedy” for injured workers. In order to be the “exclusive remedy” and be constitutional, the worker’s compensation system has to guarantee an adequate substitute for the rights the worker gives up – namely the right to sue his employer and have a jury determine the full measure of damages.

In 2003, the Florida Legislature eliminated an injured worker’s right to compensation for loss of wage earning capacity for partial disability. This meant that if a workplace injury diminished, but did not eliminate, an injured worker’s ability to earn wages, he was not entitled to receive anything to make up for the difference in wages. The Circuit Court ruled that this lack of partial disability coverage made worker’s compensation an an inadequate substitute for the injured worker giving up the right to sue in court where he could receive that benefit, which makes the law unconstitutional.

What does the Court’s ruling mean?

Right now the Circuit Court’s ruling only directly affects the 11th Judicial Circuit, which is Miami-Dade County. Expect a quick appeal of this to the Third DCA, and then to the Florida Supreme Court. I also wouldn’t rule out the Florida Legislature taking up the issue of worker’s compensation during the 2015 legislative session, but I really don’t expect them to make any substantive changes to the law (like repealing the exclusive remedy provision).

While this is an important court ruling, it is only the first step forward in what will likely become a larger court and legislative battle over the rights of injured workers.