Worker’s Compensation Statute Found Unconstitutional by Florida Judge

Old_timer_structural_worker.jpgWorker’s compensation (WC) is a type of insurance that compensates employees for injuries suffered in the course of their employment. Coverage is essentially assured for workers who can establish that the injury was job-related and not due to their own negligence. The tradeoff is that the amount of coverage is limited to medical benefits and lost wages, and workers have no recourse through the courts. Most states have made WC the exclusive remedy for injured workers, although New Jersey still allows employers to opt out of the system. The limited amount of benefits available to an injured worker, along with lack of access to the courts, led a Florida judge to rule that state’s WC statute unconstitutional. Florida Workers’ Advocates v. Florida (“FWA“), No. 11-13661, order (Fla. 11th Cir. Ct., Aug. 13, 2014).

The basic purpose of the WC system, if you view it in the most favorable light possible, is to remove the uncertainty and difficulty of litigation and ensure compensation for injured workers. The obligation to pay claims, in exchange for the loss of access to the courts, is sometimes known as the “compensation bargain.” In practice, of course, this “bargain” often denies workers adequate compensation for their injuries. Most states also make the WC system compulsory for injured workers, denying them the right to a civil trial. The Seventh Amendment right to a trial by jury in civil cases has never been applied to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed this view, holding that compulsory WC systems do not violate the Constitution. Mountain Timber Co. v. Washington, 243 U.S. 219, 235 (1917). See also New York Central R. Co. v. White, 243 U.S. 188 (1917); Hawkins v. Bleakly, 243 U.S. 210 (1917).

Florida’s WC system is the exclusive remedy for workers injured on the job. Fl. Stat. §§ 440.10, 440.11. The recent decision involved a woman who tripped over boxes left on the floor at her workplace, causing injury to her shoulder. Even after shoulder replacement surgery, she was in so much pain that she was forced into early retirement. She intervened in a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment holding the WC statute unconstitutional.

The court ruled that the exclusivity provision of § 440.11 violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, finding that the statute “does not provide a reasonable alternative remedy to the tort remedy it supplanted.” FWA at 19. It also stated that the law should include some form of permanent partial disability benefit, which was eliminated by amendments to the law in 2003.

New Jersey still allows employers to opt out of the WC system. See NJ Rev. Stat. § 34:15-7. This means that a worker whose employer does not pay into the WC system could file suit for injuries, allowing the possibility of greater recovery. New Jersey is also one of the few states that allows injured workers to bypass the WC system for injuries caused by intentional, reckless, or wanton acts by an employer. The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that insurance coverage, including worker’s compensation, does not protect an employer from liability for intentional conduct. Ambassador Ins. Co. v. Montes, 388 A.2d 603 (N.J. 1978).

If you need to speak to an employment law attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

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Photo credit: By Lewis Hine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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