Jacek Stramski |

This week the Supreme Court held that section 440.15(2)(a), Florida Statutes (2009), which cuts off workers’ compensation disability benefits to a worker who is totally disabled and unable to work but who has not yet reached maximum medical improvement after 104 weeks, is unconstitutional as a denial of the right to access to courts. Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg (SC13-1930).

The controversy in the case, set out in more detail previously here: “arose when Bradley Westphal, a firefighter for the City of St. Petersburg, was injured while stepping off of a firetruck in 2009. The City paid temporary total disability benefits to Westphal for the statutory maximum of 104 weeks and promptly ceased payment because Westphal had not reached maximum medical improvement (MMI) and, thus, could not show that he was entitled permanent total disability benefits. Nine months later, when Westphal reached MMI and was able to show that he was permanently totally disabled, the City resumed payment of benefits to Westphal, this time in the form of permanent total benefits.

Westphal filed suit seeking compensation for the 9 month gap in benefits that began after the expiration of the 104 week period and lasted until the day he was able to establish factual MMI…” The basis of the challenge was that the statute violated Westphal’s right to seek redress for his harm through the courts.

The Supreme Court noted that the test for whether a provision of the workers’ compensation statute violates the right to seek redress for injuries through the court system centers on whether it provides “adequate, sufficient, and even preferable safeguards for an employee who is injured on the job” as compared to litigation. Citing Kluger v. White, 281 So. 2d 1, 4 (Fla. 1973). Because the statute as applied to Westphal’s case would have deprived him of compensation for the nine months from when his temporary benefits ended but before he was entitled to permanent benefits (by showing a permanent disability following maximum medical improvement), the statute impermissibly restricted Westphal’s right to seek redress for his harm.

The Court declined an invitation by amici to entertain the constitutionality of the entire worker’s compensation statutory scheme, and instead focused on the constitutionality of section 440.15(2)(a) as applied to Westphal. The Court applied the doctrine of statutory revival and reinstated the pre-1994 version of section 440.15(2)(a), which had a limitation of 260 weeks on temporary disability benefits, as opposed to the 104 week limitation at issue. It held that such a limit should provide adequate time for a worker to reach maximum medical improvement following a work related injury.

Justice Lewis, in a critical concurring opinion, argued that the benefits available under Florida’s worker’s compensation laws have been eroded to such an extent by the Legislature that he would have invalidated Chapter 440, Florida Statutes in its entirety and have the Legislature “provide a valid, comprehensive program.”

By contrast, Justices Canady and Polston would have rejected the access to courts challenge on the basis that in 1968, when the constitutional access to courts provision was adopted, the remedies available to a claimant for benefits were lower than even those permitted under the 104 week limitation of section 440.15(2)(a). They therefore contend that the limitation did not restrict any right to redress that existed at the time the right to access to courts provision was incorporated into the state constitution and as such, the limitation should be valid.

Court Extends Availability of Temporary Disability Benefits Under Workers’ Compensation Statutes

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