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Florida Court Changes Workers’ Compensation Law, Again

Posted on Thursday, October 24, 2013
Blog, Workers' Compensation

Florida courts continue to go back and forth on the issue of when someone receiving worker’s comp is eligible to apply for permanent disability.

The subject of the contested case is Brad Westphal, a firefighter who injured his back and leg on the job in 2009. His worker’s compensation was cut off in 2011 after his two years of temporary disability expired. For 9 months, he received no worker’s comp payments even though he had not recovered from his injuries.

Florida law states that in order for a person receiving worker’s compensation to qualify for permanent disability benefits, he/she must meet a standard known as “maximum medical improvement” (MMI). MMI means that the injured person has either made a full recovery, or reached a point where no further healing is possible despite ongoing rehabilitation or treatment. When MMI is reached, the employee’s worker’s comp benefits are assessed and a final settlement is agreed upon.

Westphal filed an appeal in February when his claim for worker’s compensation was denied on the basis that it was impossible to determine permanent disability because he had not reached MMI. As a result of Westphal’s appeal, a three-judge panel rejected the law that set a two year limit on temporary disability benefits, claiming that the 2-year limit was unconstitutional because it cut off disability benefits from workers who were still incapable of returning to work but had not yet reached maximum medical improvement, making them ineligible for permanent disability

At the end of last month, an appeals court revisited the case, ultimately ruling that the 2-year limit on temporary disability benefits was not unconstitutional. Instead, they reinterpreted the law to mean that a worker who is still disabled after his/her 2 years of temporary disability benefits have expired has automatically reached MMI and is therefore eligible to apply for permanent disability benefits.

The court’s dissenting opinion (8-3) stated that this new law creates an entitlement to permanent total disability benefits after temporary disability benefits have run out, regardless of whether the injured employee has actually reached maximum medical improvement as it was originally defined.