Judge Jorge E. Cueto, sitting in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County, Florida, recently found the Florida Workers’ Compensation Act, as amended effective October 1, 2003, does not provide a “reasonable alternative remedy to the tort remedy it supplanted.” Padgett v. State of Florida, No. 11-13661-CA-25 (view the Padgett opinion). This ruling declares the remedies provided under Chapter 440 of the Florida Statutes as unconstitutional due to the lack of ‘significant’ benefits to the worker.
The facts of the case are similar to many within the general workers’ compensation field. Elsa Padgett sustained an on-the-job injury resulting in surgery and retirement from her government position. Ms. Padgett received the exclusive remedy for her work-related-injury under Florida Law and subsequently initiated a negligence action against her employer. After Ms. Padgett’s employer initiated a defense under Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Statutes, Ms. Padgett contested the constitutionality of the law.
In analyzing the law, Judge Cueto noted the U.S. Supreme Court requires workers’ compensation benefits to be ‘significant’ if these benefits are the exclusive remedy available to the worker. New York Central Railroad v. White, 243 U.S. 188, 37 S.Ct. 247, 61 L.Ed. 667 (1917). Absent these ‘significant’ benefits, Judge Cueto reasoned the law violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as the Florida Constitution.
Judge Cueto’s assessment of significance largely focused on the category of benefits described as permanent partial disability. As Judge Cueto describes in detail, prior to legislative modifications to Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Law, if a worker experienced a loss of wage earning capacity that exceeded the permanent impairment benefit, that worker was paid the greater of the two benefits. After certain legislative changes in October, 2003, the legislature eliminated all compensation for partial loss of wage earning capacity unless it was a total loss. According to Judge Cueto’s opinion, the Florida Legislature has made many modifications to workers’ benefits since the Florida Constitution was adopted in 1968 and ratified by the electorate. Concluding his opinion, Judge Cueto states the overall impact of these legislative modifications, combined with the October 2003 changes, effectively stand as unconstitutional.
While interesting, the impact of this case does not render Florida Workers’ Compensation Law unconstitutional and does not bind other courts in Florida. The case may well be appealed and the Florida Supreme Court may address this issue in the near future. Until such time, employers should closely monitor the movement of this and similar cases as well as consult with their workers compensation carrier for additional guidance.
Cole, Scott & Kissane, P.A. will continue to analyze the legal landscape as it relates to the Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Statute and all other matters impacting our clients.