Collateral Source Rule and Florida Unemployment Compensation Benefits
Florida has a collateral source rule that calls for a reduction of a damages award by the amount of payments received from various collateral sources. Florida statute 768.76 retracts the common-law collateral source rule and provides that certain payments from various sources can be set off from a plaintiff’s recovery. The Florida collateral source statute language also indicates that actual payment by these sources is not necessary, it is sufficient if the collateral source is “otherwise available” to the successful plaintiff.
The statute defines collateral sources in a variety of ways, but most are either government based payments or insurance based payments. Social Security, any federal, state or local income disability payments, public programs providing medical expenses, health, sickness, or income disability insurance, automobile accident insurance that provides health benefits or income disability coverage (PIP coverage), and any other similar insurance benefits (except life insurance) are all listed. Just about any government payment usually qualifies.
A recent Florida District Court of Appeal decision points out that there are other government based payments that can be received by a claimant which are not specifically listed within this statute and thus, would seem to be exempt. In Hurtado vs. Desouza, a laid-off airline pilot who was receiving unemployment compensation benefits at the time of an automobile accident obtained a jury award in excess of $1,000,000. Part of the jury award included $325,000 in past lost wages. The defense attorney, still licking his wounds from this phenomenal jury trial decision, sought to ease the pain for the insurance company that hired him by claiming that there should be a post-trial set off of not only the $10,000 in automobile PIP payments received by the pilot, but also the $27,000 in unemployment compensation benefits he had received pre-trial. The learned judge appeared to buy the argument that unemployment compensation benefits were part of the Florida collateral source reduction scheme.
Not so fast said the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal panel hearing the appeal. Where in the collateral source statute does it say anything about unemployment compensation? In reviewing the specific language contained within this statute, there isn’t a single mention of this particular government benefit. Most of the “lost income” type government benefits all presume a person is disabled and that the disability is the reason for the receipt of the benefits. But what about when the “lost income” government benefit has nothing to do with disability? Since a person receiving unemployment compensation benefits must be physically able to work, unemployment compensation benefits didn’t seem to fit the perceived statutory scheme created by the Florida legislature.
The second section of the collateral benefits statute that dealt with health, sickness, or income disability insurance likewise did not seem to apply. All of the listed examples suggested that a person was unable to work and that this inability to work triggered entitlement to these benefits. Likewise, in the third subsection of the statute, it mentions hospital, medical, dental, or other healthcare services reimbursement plans, which also don’t fall within this type of government benefit. The fourth subsection was held not to be a “contractual or voluntary wage continuation plan provided by employers or by any other system intended to provide wages during a period of disability” for the same reason. Again, the same logic: a recipient of unemployment compensation benefits must have the ability to work in order to qualify.
There is no doubt that the purpose of Florida statute 768.76 was to prevent double recovery to a claimant. But because unemployment compensation benefits are not specifically listed in Florida statute 768.76 and could not be interpreted as a collateral source under any of its provisions, the learned judge was reversed!
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