On August 13th, a Circuit Court judge in Miami ruled that Florida's workers' compensation laws are unconstitutional because they fail to provide compensation for permanent partial disability and require workers to pay a portion of their medical care after reaching "maximum medical improvement."
A person that is injured on the job in Florida receives workers' compensation benefits as the exclusive remedy against his or her employer. The remedy is exclusive as Florida's workers' compensation statutes replace an injured worker's ability to sue his or her employer for negligence. Of concern is that the workers' compensation statutory scheme strictly limits the amount of compensation provided for partial disabilities and resulting medical expenses.
The right to file a lawsuit to seek redress for any alleged harm is protected by the due process clause (the 14th amendment) of the United States Constitution and by the right to jury trial and access to courts provisions of the Florida Constitution. Before the enactment of Florida's workers' compensation statutes, injured workers had the right to sue their employers for negligence. Until 1970, an injured employee could "opt-out" of the workers' compensation scheme and sue in negligence. However, the statutes were amended in 1970 making workers' compensation the exclusive remedy for workers' claims against their employers.
In 1973, the Florida Supreme Court held that the right to file a lawsuit for injuries can only be taken away when a "reasonable alternative" is provided to take its place.
For example, a person that suffers a temporary injury in an automobile accident in Florida is not allowed to sue the at-fault driver for such injury because Florida's personal injury protection statutes provide medical and lost wage benefits via mandatory insurance coverage. The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the loss of the right to file suit for such temporary injuries is constitutional because the mandatory insurance coverage provides a "reasonable alternative" to filing suit. While the "reasonableness" of this alternative is debatable, there is at least some alternative benefit provided by the personal injury protection scheme.
On numerous occasions, courts have held that Florida's workers' compensation scheme provides a reasonable alternative to litigation. However, major changes were enacted in 2003. Among those changes was the elimination of compensation for permanent partial disability. For example, if a worker suffers an injury that prevents his or her ability to continue performing physical labor, but does not prevent them from performing office work, then that worker is not provided compensation for that partial loss of earning power.
The ruling in the Miami Circuit Court does not have precedential effect on cases occurring in Jacksonville; however, it provides well reasoned support for the constitutional challenge of the workers' compensation statutes expected to be decided by the Florida Supreme Court in the near future.