In Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, 2013 Fla. App. LEXIS 3203, the court held that Florida’s 104-week cap on temporary total disability benefits is unconstitutional. In striking down this limitation, which was established in a 1994 workers compensation law, the court revived the prior temporary total disability law requiring employers to pay 260 weeks of temporary total disability benefits. If the decision stands, contractors in Florida may owe significantly larger indemnity payments on open workers compensation temporary total disability claims.
The Westphal case involved an injured emergency responder (Mr. Westphal) who suffered back and leg injuries on the job and had not yet reached maximum medical improvement when his 104 weeks of temporary total disability benefits expired. Mr. Westphal was denied permanent total disability benefits because he was not at maximum medical improvement and therefore awarding partial total disability benefits was viewed as “too speculative.” Nine months later, after he was awarded permanent total disability benefits, Mr. Westphal brought suit against the City of St. Petersburg and the State of Florida for the statutory gap in his disability benefits caused by the exhaustion of his temporary total disability (TTD) benefits before he was eligible for permanent total disability (PTD) benefits.
The appellate court unanimously held that the 104-week time limit on TTD benefits is unconstitutional because it denies severely injured workers the right to the “administration of justice without (…) delay” as provided in the Florida Constitution. Further, because the workers compensation system requires injured workers to forgo common law rights of recovery for damages for an injury, subjecting the severely injured worker to “personal ruination” to collect full benefits “is not merely unfair, but is fundamentally and manifestly unjust.”
The ruling will automatically be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court. If allowed to stand, all open and future claims will be governed by this decision. (The court did not retroactively apply the ruling to closed claims.) Contractors subject to Florida workers compensation law should work with their insurance representatives to anticipate the impact this decision may have on their workers compensation insurance programs.