The Florida Supreme Court struck a blow for injured workers on Oct. 23 when it overturned part of the provisions of the 2003 overhaul of our state workers’ compensation laws. In Emma Murray v. Mariner Health/ACE USA, the court overturned the 2003 law’s formula for awarding attorney fees in workers compensation cases, noting that the formula would result in attorneys’ fees that would be either excessive or inadequate. This violated the law’s own requirement that fees be reasonable, as well as past rulings on the subject. In this case, the formula resulted in an award of just $8.11 an hour for the plaintiff’s attorney, a fraction of the $200 an hour cited in the case as standard for Florida workers’ compensation attorneys and significantly below the $150 an hour paid to the lawyer for the other side.
It is probably easy to see why Florida workers’ compensation lawyers like me appreciate this ruling — after all, we stand to make more money, at least in some cases. (In others, it might result in lower attorney fees than otherwise.) It might be a little harder to see why I think this is also a victory for injured workers, so let me explain. If you’re injured at work, you have the right to claim workers’ compensation benefits, regardless of who was at fault for the injury. In exchange for that right (not the benefits themselves), you give up your right to sue your employer for any wrongdoing that caused the injury.
Unfortunately, sometimes valid claims are denied, as in this case. When that’s the case, workers have to appeal their claims through administrative hearings with the state, and eventually, by filing a lawsuit in Florida courts. It is much, much easier to succeed in this if you have a lawyer, because workers’ compensation law is particularly complex. Even many other personal injury lawyers prefer to refer clients to someone who specializes in this area.
However, the formula in the 2003 law made it nearly impossible for certain injured workers to find a lawyer who will take on their cases. If all of their fees were around $8.11 an hour, as in this case, Florida workers’ comp lawyers would simply not be able to run their offices and pay their bills. As a result, fewer and fewer lawyers in Florida were willing to take on workers’ compensation cases, which left workers stuck with no benefits, no matter how valid their claims, and no recourse other than to represent themselves or use government benefits to get the health care they need.
I hope and believe that the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Murray will change that, although it will likely continue to be an important political issue. In the meantime, if you’ve been hurt in the course of your own job and you believe your workers’ comp benefits were unfairly denied, you should talk to our firm, Cohn, Smith & Cohn, to learn more about your legal right to workers’ compensation benefits.