Employers and insurance carriers across Florida won some peace of mind on Sept. 23 as the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal reversed a ruling that declared a 104-week cap on temporary total benefits unconstitutional and extended coverage for injured workers to 260 weeks.
The opinion, Westphal v. the City of St. Petersburg, had major implications for employers and their carriers because it opened the door to expanded TTD benefits in Florida, long considered a bellwether state for the national workers' compensation industry. An actuarial study by the National Council on Compensation Insurance expected the ruling to increase costs to the Florida industry by 2.6%, or $65 million. More importantly, the original decision was a platform potentially permitting the courts to invalidate other benefit caps and reductions such as those on temporary partial disability, permanent total disability and medical benefits.
In reversing Westphal, the Court also receded from its 2011 en banc decision in another case, Matrix Employee Leasing, Inc. v. Hadley, and ruled that a claimant in TTD status at the expiration of the 104 weeks is eligible to receive PTD benefits.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Westphal will seek review in the Supreme Court … which is not required to accept the case even if asked. Assuming no such review, we should consider the en banc decision to be a theoretical victory for industry with the caveat that we don’t yet know the financial impact of this latest development.
The 60+ members of Associated Industries of Florida’s Workers' Compensation Coalition include leading employers and insurers whose businesses are critical to our state’s economy, particularly in a time of slow post-recession recovery and widespread confusion and trepidation about health care reform.
As AIF General Counsel Tamela Perdue points out, the cornerstone of a successful workers’ compensation system is predictability, and the constitutional holding of Westphal seems to strengthen that predictability. However, the cost impact from the procedural holdings in this case could create cost drivers that increase premiums on Florida employers. Let’s hope not.
For now, the best part of this decision is it prevents Westphal from being used as a tool to invalidate other sections of the law. The initial decision was an ill-advised judicial effort to undo important legislative changes to the workers' compensation law that have provided a stable and affordable insurance market for Florida’s businesses.
William H. Rogner, a partner with the Hurley, Rogner, Miller, Cox, Waranch & Westcott law firm in Winter Park, Fla., filed the amicus brief in Westphal v. the City of St. Petersburg on behalf of Associated Industries of Florida.