Workers Compensation Laws May Be Changing In Favor of Injured Employees
As a Florida personal injury lawyer, I am frequently contacted by persons who have been injured either at their job site or while working. For the past 80 years or so, Florida employers have enjoyed (for the most part) total immunity from claims by their injured employees. Under the Florida Worker’s Compensation law, if an employer purchases workers compensation coverage, then they are almost always immune from lawsuits when their employees are injured or killed. There are exceptions to this immunity that are so extreme that it is almost impossible for an injured employee to successfully sue for a workplace injury.
Many years ago I represented a woman and her child in a lawsuit against her murdered husband’s employer. A coworker had been fired earlier in the day and told the woman’s husband that he felt the husband was responsible for the termination and that he was going to kill him. The husband subsequently left the workplace at lunch. While he was at lunch, he received a call from the manager that he needed to return to the workplace, but the manager didn’t say for what. When the husband returned to the workplace and went to his office, the murderer went out to his car, retrieved a pistol and walked down the office hallway, tapping the pistol on the window of each office as he passed by. Several employees saw what was about to happen and tried to talk the murderer out of going forward with his plans. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful and the murderer walked into the husband’s office and shot him. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Other than the death benefits provided for under workmen’s compensation, the widow and surviving child got nothing from the employer/management who knew ahead of time that there was a high likelihood of injury or death to the husband.
A lawsuit against the employer for this scenario was unsuccessful. The extreme exception contained in the the worker’s compensation immunity statute resulted in the widow and child being completely limited in their claims against the employer. The limitation was as a result of Florida’s workers compensation laws in place at the time. What does this law say? Florida statute 440.11 (1) states:
“The liability of an employer prescribed in s. 440.10 shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability, including vicarious liability, of such employer to any third party tortfeasor and to the employee, the legal representative thereof, husband or wife, parents, dependents, next of kin, and anyone otherwise entitled to recover damages from such employer at law or Admiralty on account of such injury or death…”
This language has been in place since 1935, more than 30 years prior to the adoption of the Florida Constitution in 1968. The Florida Constitution contains a significant right to access to the courts that statutes cannot overcome unless there is a reasonable alternative to the loss. Does losing the right to receive full and complete compensation for an injury or death overcome the Florida constitutional right to seek redress for such damages? That has been an issue that has been raised multiple times without success.
There are dozens if not hundreds of similar scenarios and examples in which persons who were significantly injured or killed did not have an adequate remedy for all of the damages caused by the injury or death. Think about it, an employer can purchase insurance coverage that makes them completely immune to being sued for the actual damages that the injury or death causes. Nowhere else does such an immunity exist. If a vehicle owner purchases insurance for their car, they are still responsible for any damages over and above the amount of the insurance coverage. Not so with employers and workers compensation coverage. The workers compensation and employer lobbying that has occurred on this issue is without par at any level. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent convincing the Florida legislature to limit benefits available to an injured employee or the family of a deceased employee. This might now be a classic example of having gone too far in trying to protect the workers compensation industry and employers. The Florida courts are now faced with strong arguments that the substantially reduced benefits now contained in the workers compensation do not adequately and fairly protect the workers such that they should be expected to lose such important constitutional rights as being able to seek redress for all damages suffered.
Attempts to Throw Out Worker’s Compensation Immunity
Over the past several years, numerous attempts at having this Worker’s Compensation immunity thrown out as being unconstitutional have failed. However, there are several attempts that are working their way through the appellate courts that just might be successful. In fact, another attempt in Miami-Dade County recently resulted in a Miami judge declaring that the workers compensation law was unconstitutional because the Florida legislature had so diminished medical care and wage loss benefits for injured or killed workers that the statute now violated those employees “fundamental rights.” In this particular case, Miami-Dade Judge Cueto recently agreed with an injured employee that the paltry benefits offered under the current workers compensation laws were so insufficient, that the immunity granted to the employer (Miami-Dade County) violated the fundamental rights that everyone has to access to Florida courts to seek redress for their injuries.
There are several appellate court decisions that are working their way through the system seeking to do the same thing as Judge Cueto has done. Will that be the end of the controversy if his decision is upheld or if the appellate court decisions result in the Florida Supreme Court deciding that the Florida Worker’s Compensation is unconstitutional? Probably not. But if the decisions are released soon, we can all count on this issue being raised in the upcoming elections. Did you also know that whoever is elected to Governor of the state of Florida in the upcoming election cycle will be appointing several Florida Supreme Court justices? Whoever is appointed as judges retire will very likely be deciding this very important issue. That makes it extremely important that all citizen-voters be aware of these issues and the ramifications of not changing Florida’s attitude towards workers and the families of such. Over the past decade or so, the Florida legislature has been controlled by an increasingly hostile group that could care less about injured workers and their families. Now is the time for change to occur. Only time will tell if the electorate has the courage and tenacity to make that happen.
Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net by Stuart Miles