The Florida Justice Association is pleased by the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Murray v Mariner Health Care, issued on October 23, 2008.
By granting “reasonable fees” to attorneys who represent injured workers, the Court has recognized the importance of assuring that Floridians who suffer injuries in the course of their employment have access to legal counsel to assure that they receive those benefits due to them and to assure that the financial burden of workplace injuries is not borne by Florida’s taxpayers.
Workers’ compensation laws were intended to be fair to all parties involved, to employers, insurers and, most importantly, to injured workers. In exchange for access to limited benefits, injured workers give up their common law right to file a lawsuit against their employer even in situations of extreme negligence on the part of the employer. Florida’s injured workers receive less than the full sum of wages they lose, surrender completely their right to select the medical providers who treat their injuries and receive no compensation for non-economic damages. In 2003, Florida’s workers’ compensation law was dramatically changed, eliminating any sense of fairness from the system. Injured workers’ benefits were slashed and their ability to access the courts impaired by statutory provisions that forbid them hiring an attorney and paying that attorney a reasonable sum to represent them. As a consequence of the limitations on attorney fees imposed with the 2003 changes, injured workers have in many cases been unable to obtain lost wages and medical care they were entitled to receive.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Murray determined that the statutory caps on attorneys’ fees were ambiguous. The results call attention to the inequitable fee disparity between attorneys representing injured workers and those representing insurance companies. For while the 2003 changes to Florida’s workers’ compensation law limited fees that could be paid to an injured worker’s attorney, the law imposed no limitation on what an insurance company could pay its attorneys. In Murray, upwards of $150 an hour was paid by the insurance company to its attorneys, while the injured worker’s attorney was to be limited to a fee of $8 an hour. This disproportionate compensation is why Florida’s injured workers have seen an ever dwindling pool of attorneys willing to accept workers’ compensation cases.
Unable to obtain lost wages and medical benefits due from their employer’s insurer and unable to find legal counsel to file claims for those benefits, Florida’s injured workers have turned to social programs such as Medicaid and Social Security to meet their medical needs and financial obligations. This places the obligation for Floridians injured in their employment not on the workers’ compensation system as intended, but rather on the backs of Florida taxpayers.
The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in Murray rectifies one of the gross inequities created by the 2003 amendments to Florida’s workers’ compensation law and, in a small way, hopefully restores some degree of fairness to the system.