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What Could a Recent Florida Supreme Court Ruling Mean For Your Workers' Compensation Claim?

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If you're a resident of Florida who was recently injured at work, you may be in the midst of negotiating potential workers' compensation benefits with your employer and its insurance company. These benefits are designed to help compensate you for any lost wages, medical expenses, and other costs associated with your injury and recovery, minimizing the financial sting of this workplace injury. However, you may sometimes find that you need legal assistance to fight for what you're rightfully owed—and until very recently, this assistance could be difficult for those with relatively "cheap" injuries to find. Read on to learn more about a recent Florida Supreme Court decision that could affect the way your pending workers' comp claim is handled.

What did the Florida Supreme Court's decision say about state workers' compensation laws?

Because those who are fighting to receive workers' compensation benefits often don't have the cash to pay an attorney to litigate this claim, many attorneys will instead accept a contingency fee in place of upfront payment. This contingency fee promises that the attorney will receive a set amount of any eventual settlement or judgment awarded, but that they will not collect a fee if the lawsuit is unsuccessful.

In 2009, in an effort to reduce what were deemed too-rapidly rising workers' compensation costs, Florida lawmakers passed a law intending to limit the amount of a workers' compensation award that could be signed over to an attorney as part of a contingency fee arrangement. This law capped the allowable contingency fees at 20 percent of the first $5,000 in workers' compensation benefits awarded to an injured worker, and then no more than 15 percent of any awarded benefits in excess of $5,000. As a result, many injured workers who needed legal assistance but whose claims were likely to fall well below the $5,000 threshold found it difficult to obtain legal counsel. 

One worker filed a lawsuit alleging that this bill was unconstitutional after his attorney was awarded fees equivalent to just a little over $1.50 per hour of work spent litigating his case. The Florida Supreme Court agreed, with a majority of the justices holding that this law was an unreasonable restriction on the amount of attorney fees that could be recovered in a workers' compensation claim. As a result, the law has essentially been declared invalid, and the prior "reasonableness" standard should be put into practice for claims currently being litigated.

How might this decision affect the way your own workers' compensation claim is handled? 

If you're still in the preliminary negotiation stages, you may find that you're able to receive an adequate and fair settlement without involving an attorney. However, in some cases, your employer's workers' compensation insurer may try to argue that your injuries (and associated medical bills) were due to a preexisting condition rather than a workplace accident or that you're not eligible to have all your bills covered for one of a variety of reasons. If this is the case, obtaining legal counsel may be the best way to ensure you're given all the funds to which you're entitled. 

Now that the Florida Supreme Court has reinstated the "reasonableness" standard for the award of attorney's fees in workers' comp cases, you may find it much easier to locate an attorney willing to handle your case—even if the dollar amount you're dealing with is in the low four figures. Particularly if your employer's insurer is being overly difficult to deal with, a trial court may award attorney's fees over and above the amount of benefits you collect, ensuring you receive everything to which you're entitled without losing even a portion to attorney's fees. Click here to read more about a workers's compensation lawyer can help you.