As an attorney who practices in the area of Worker’s Compensation, I regularly have to tell employees that they cannot sue their employer for negligence if they receive workers compensation benefits. Specifically, pursuant to section 440.11, Florida statutes, the only remedy that an injured employee has against his employer are workers compensation benefits. This is what is commonly referred to as the “exclusive remedy” provision of the Florida workers compensation statute. Even if the employer is negligent, the employee still cannot sue their employer (or co-workers) for negligence. However, on Wednesday, August 13, 2014, a Florida Circuit Court Judge found the Florida Worker’s Compensation statute unconstitutional and opened the door to employees being able to sue their employers for negligence.
Judge Jorge Cueto, Circuit Court Judge in Miami – Dade County, Florida, in a 21 page decision, ruled that the changes to the Florida Workers Compensation statutes, which went into effect on October 1, 2003, violated the Florida Constitution and the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution in that the “exclusive remedy” provision of the statue denied the injured employee a right to trial by jury. Specifically, the Court reasoned that the beginning in 1970, the Florida legislature began eroding the rights of injured workers to workers compensation benefits including not allowing the employee to “opt out” of workers’ comp coverage; denying wage loss benefits/loss of earning capacity benefits;, reducing the amount of permanent total disability benefits that an employee can receive over their life; inhibiting the employee from being able to receive medical care; requiring the employee to pay for a medical copayment after reaching Maximum Medical improvement; and by allowing employers to apportion medical cost with the employee. The Court went on to say that while the Florida Workers Compensation Law itself, when initially enacted, may have provided appropriate benefits to the employee to allow the legislature to take away the right to trial by jury/suing for negligence, the various amendments over the years, especially the amendments that went into effect in October 1, 2003, have made the statutory benefits inadequate and unconstitutional to the extent that they take away an employees to file suit against the employer for negligence. Thus, since the statute as a whole does not provide an adequate remedy to injured employees, section 440.11, the exclusive remedy provision of the Florida workers compensation statute, is invalid and is unconstitutional under both of the Florida in the United States constitutions as it takes away the right of the employee to recover damages for negligence. In effect, This Court’s opinion may now allow an employee to sue his employer for negligence even if he has received benefits under the Worker’s Compensation system.
At the office JJ Talbott, we believe that the Court’s reasoning is well-founded and appropriate. The Florida legislature, over the years, has gone too far in an attempt to inhibit employees from receiving appropriate compensation. To the extent you disagree, I would invite you to ask anyone who has been involved in the Florida Workers Compensation system. While the idea of the Worker’s Compensation system is a good idea, in its present form, it is controlled by big businesses, is raped by conservative/employer physicians, and one which does not provide appropriate medical or monetary benefits to employees. Why else would the law allow the insurance companies to pay their attorneys however much they want, but limit a employee’s attorney to receiving minimal amounts, often less than the minimum wage. To the extent that the legislature wants to keep the Florida Workers Compensation statute “in tact”, they must either provide adequate benefits for employees, or remove the “exclusive remedy” provision of the statute such that employees that are injured through the negligence of the employer have a right to sue for negligence. Why shouldn’t an employee be able to work in a safe workplace? Considering the Escambia County explosion, is it fair for an inmate to have greater and more rights than the security guards who protect them? Hopefully Judge Cueto’s opinion will be a wake-up call to the Florida legislature.