motorway nightNot a day goes by where we do not hear at least one person declare that he or she has “full coverage.” Most of the declarants are wrong.

Insurance companies authorized to sell vehicle insurance in Florida are required by law to offer a full range of coverage options under the standard policy. However, only two types of coverage, PIP and Property Damage (Liability), are required for the vehicle owner to register and lawfully operate the vehicle in Florida. Many people consider this “full coverage.”

The problem with this “full coverage” is that it falls short of insuring against every type of loss that can result from a vehicle crash. Moreover, it leaves the at-fault party at risk of having his or her driving privileges suspended. § 324.051(2)(a) Florida Statutes

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city-zone-945513-mIn response to a Complaint we recently filed involving a serious crash on Florida’s Turnpike, the Defendant asserted as an affirmative defense that our client, the Plaintiff, should not recover because she had the “last clear chance” to avoid the accident.

In the many personal injury cases our firm has handled, this is the first time we have had this doctrine asserted. We had to do legal research to understand, what, if anything, it meant in our case. What we learned is that the doctrine has not been applicable in Florida personal injury cases since 1973. Moreover, when it did apply years ago it was always used by Plaintiffs against Defendants, not by Defendants against Plaintiffs. Hence, the affirmative defense in our case is hogwash.

Prior to the Florida Supreme Court’s holding in Hoffman v. Jones, 280 So.2d 431 (Fla., 1973), Florida was a contributory negligence jurisdiction. Hoffman turned Florida into a comparative negligence (or fault) jurisdiction.

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Our firm has written exhaustively on topics related to Florida’s workers’ compensation system. One of the recurring themes has been the steady loss of rights those in the workplace have experienced over the past 20 years or so. Here is a link to a superb law review article which addresses the subject. It was written in 2015 by Viktorya Johnson, J.D. Candidate, Stetson University College of Law, 2016.

FLORIDA WORKERS’ COMPENSATION ACT: THE UNCONSTITUTIONAL EROSION OF THE QUID PRO QUO

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scales of justiceISSUE: Whether section 440.34 Florida Statutes, recently modified by the Florida Supreme Court in Castellanos v. Next Door Company, et al. (Fla., 2016), should be amended to eliminate insurance carrier-paid reasonable attorney’s fees.

DISCUSSION: In 2009, the Florida Legislature barred judges of workers’ compensation claims (JCC) from awarding reasonable carrier-paid hourly fees to the lawyers of injured workers who were successful in securing benefits for their clients. The legislature limited the allowable fee to the following statutory formula: 20 percent of the first $5,000 of the amount of the benefits secured, 15 percent of the next $5,000 of the amount of the benefits secured, 10 percent of the remaining amount of the benefits secured to be provided during the first 10 years after the date the claim is filed, and 5 percent of the benefits secured after 10 years. Section 440.34(1) Florida Statutes.

Because most of the day-to-day workers’ compensation benefits are of low value, the attorney’s fee under the statutory formula for the successful prosecution of a claim for such benefits is correspondingly low. For example, the formula fee for securing the authorization of a $1,000 MRI is $200.

In Castellanos v. Next Door Company, et al. (Fla., 2016), the Florida Supreme Court declared unconstitutional, as a violation of due process under the Florida and United States constitutions, the provisions of 440.34 restricting fees to the statutory formula. The ruling allows workers’ compensation judges to award reasonable fees based on an hourly rate. After seven long years injured workers have a fighting chance to receive all benefits that are due and owing. Unfortunately, there are some individuals within the business community who seek to reverse the effects of the Castellanos ruling through legislative action.

The carrier-pays provisions of section 440.34(3) which open the door to the reasonable hourly rates are triggered by the following limited circumstances: (1) the successful prosecution of a medical-only claim; (2) the successful prosecution of a claim after the carrier has denied the benefit; or (3) the successful prosecution of a claim after the carrier has denied that an accident occurred.

Hence, whether a carrier ever becomes obligated to pay a reasonable hourly fee is a matter entirely within its control.

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car-insurance-policyFlorida law requires every owner or registrant of an operable personal use motor vehicle to maintain Personal Injury Protection (PIP) and Property Damage (PD) – Liability insurance. See Florida Statute 627.733 Required security. While other types of coverage are available under the standard Florida motor vehicle insurance policy, these are the only two that are mandatory. While a premium is charged for the other types of coverage, the value can be worthwhile. For example, the minimum mandatory coverage (PIP & PD – Liability) does not prevent the at-fault insured from losing driving privileges when an accident involves injuries. Bodily Injury (BI) insurance does.

Here is a summary of the various types of coverage available under the standard Florida motor vehicle insurance policy:

Personal Injury Protection (PIP).
This coverage is outlined in Florida Statute 627.736. For in-state accidents, PIP covers the named insured, relatives residing in the same household, persons operating the insured motor vehicle, passengers in such motor vehicle, and other persons struck by such motor vehicle while not occupying a self-propelled vehicle. For out-of-state accidents occurring within the U.S. and Canada, PIP covers the named insured and resident relatives if occupying a listed vehicle. Remember this: Out-of-state, out-of-vehicle, out-of-luck.

PIP pays:

  • 80 percent of reasonable or allowable accident-related medical expenses
  • 60 percent of lost wages
  • $5,000 death benefits

The typical PIP policy limit is $10,000 per person with a deductible of up to $2,000.

Property Damage Liability (F.S. 324.022). Covers damage to a third party’s property, including motor vehicles, walls, telephone poles, buildings, etc. The coverage travels with the insured, meaning it applies (with exceptions) when the insured is operating a non-listed vehicle. It may also cover a permissive user of a listed vehicle. The minimum policy limit is $10,000.

Bodily Injury Liability (BI) (324.021). Not mandatory in Florida. However, for those convicted of DUI, it is mandatory for a period of three years after  license reinstatement. For convictions before October 1, 2007, the minimum coverage limits are $10,000 per person/$20,000 per accident. On or after October 1, 2007: $100,000/$300,000.

BI covers for injuries and loss of life caused by the insured while operating certain listed vehicles. It may also afford coverage to the insured while operating a non-listed vehicle, like a friend’s car. An added bonus of maintaining BI is that the insurance carrier will furnish a legal defense on its tab. The minimum BI coverage limits are $10,000/$20,000. The maximum can be whatever the insured desires and can afford. Umbrella insurance is a way of increasing limits while saving on cost.
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worker2On April 28, 2016, the Florida Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the mandatory fee schedule in section 440.34, Florida Statutes (2009), which eliminated the requirement of a reasonable attorney’s fee to a successful claimant. The ruling, in Castellanos v. Next Door Company, et al., sent shock waves through the workers’ compensation community. Many within the business and insurance industries instantly began howling that the sky was falling. Their protestations, amounting to hyperbole, are overblown.

Marvin Castellanos was injured in the course and scope of his employment. His employer’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier denied benefits, raising twelve defenses. Through the assistance of an attorney, Mr. Castellanos prevailed in his workers’ compensation claim. The Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) determined that claimant’s attorney devoted 107.2 hours of “reasonable and necessary” time litigating the complex case. However, because section 440.34 limited a claimant’s ability to recover attorney’s fees to a sliding scale based on the amount of workers’ compensation benefits obtained, the fee awarded to Castellanos’ attorney amounted to $164.54, or $1.53 per hour.

The JCC had no choice. Section 440.34 barred him from awarding a reasonable attorney’s fee. The Florida Supreme Court considered this arbitrary and capricious constraint as unconstitutional under both the Florida and United States Constitutions.

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Republicans have held the reins of power in Florida since 1999. Unashamedly, they have abused that power to crush the rights of individuals in favor of Big Business.

One of the areas which has experienced the greatest abuse is the state’s workers’ compensation system. Mercifully, thanks to the Florida Supreme Court the pendulum is beginning to swing in favor of fairness and decency. On April 28, 2016, in Castellanos v. Next Door Company, et al., the court found § 440.34, Florida Statutes unconstitutional. This statute had barred claimants’ attorneys from receiving reasonable attorney’s fees. Literally. The effect of the statute was that Claimants were as helpless as turtles on their backs. By finding this ridiculous law unconstitutional, Castellanos has become the single most important case in the annals of Florida workers’ compensation cases.

The positive momentum continues. Today, in Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, et al. , the Supreme Court found another outrageous Republican statute, section 440.15(2), Florida Statutes (2009), unconstitutional.

FloatI remember the night, in 1964, that a young Cassius Clay defeated world champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center. I waited anxiously by the radio for a report of the outcome. He was expected to be eaten alive by the big bad bear Liston and become a footnote in the history books. I was more relieved that he wasn’t hurt than excited about the victory. The next day Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, and the rest is much, much more than a footnote in the history books.

While his ring exploits are legendary — Olympic Gold Medal, the Thrilla in Manila, dismantling George Foreman in 8 rounds in Zaire, Africa in the fight known as The Rumble in the Jungle — his greatness came from the character he demonstrated both in the ring and out. In refusing to participate in an unconscionable conflict — the United States never formally declared war in the so-called Vietnam War — in defiance of White Establishment America, he was stripped of his world title, barred from fighting for three and a half years during the prime of his physical prowess, and convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. Instead of complaining, he fought the conviction all the way to the United States Supreme Court and had it reversed by an 8-0 vote.

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scales of justiceOn April 28, 2016, the Florida Supreme Court, in Castellanos v. Next Door Company, righted a wrong thirteen years in the making. The court decided that the due process edicts embodied in the Federal and Florida constitutions mandate that judges who decide workers’ compensation cases be allowed to award reasonable attorney’s fees to claimants attorneys. (Pre-Castellanos, judges of workers’ compensation claims (JCC) were prohibited from awarding reasonable fees.)
Not surprisingly, the right-wing propaganda machine quickly went on the attack. This morning I awoke to an article, Workers-comp rates could jump in Florida, published in my local newspaper, the Miami Herald, containing some of the falsehoods we can expect to hear. I sent an email to the author of the article addressing the biggest of those falsehoods.
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Dear Mr. Saunders:
This morning I read your article of the above title in the Miami Herald. I feel the need to respond to a quote in the article from Associated Industries CEO Tom Feeney, the highly controversial right-wing Republican partisan notorious for his role in the 2000 presidential election fiasco. According to Feeney, the Supreme Court’s opinion permits “unbridled hourly rate attorney fees.” This is complete and utter hogwash. If you read the subject opinion, Castellanos v. Next Door Company, and the workers’ compensation attorney’s fee statute (F.S. 440.34), you will see that the hourly attorney fee rate will be anything but “unbridled” as a result of the Castellanos decision.

IMG_2410The legal principle of respondent superior makes employers liable in civil damages for the negligence of their employees.

The typical large-scale construction project is manned by workers employed by many different companies. However, the theories of vertical and horizontal immunity contained in Florida Statute Sections 440.10(1)(b)&(e) exempt construction site employers from respondent superior liability for worker on worker accidents.*

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