american-flag-1316754-300x200Within the past two weeks, three bills limiting the rights of everyday citizens to control how they are governed were signed into law in Florida.

On May 10, 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 1890. The bill places a $3,000 cap on contributions to political committees trying to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Constitutional amendment ballot initiatives are a citizens way of creating law. The right extends back to Florida’s 1968 Constitution. Examples of successful initiatives include approval of medical marijuana and  a pathway for restoration of felon voting rights. Getting a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot is a steep uphill climb. It requires forming and registering a committee, getting approval of the initiative language from the Attorney General and Florida Supreme Court, and securing thousands of signatures. Once the initiative is on the ballot, it requires 60% approval from voters for passage. Financial resources provide the wherewithal to accomplish all of these goals. SB 1890 may be an insurmountable hurdle. Recognizing this, the American Civil Liberties Union has wasted no time in filing a lawsuit in federal court in Tallahassee, Florida claiming that SB 1890 “burdens and chills” free speech and association under the First Amendment.

Firefighter-300x225Unless you are a firefighter or any law enforcement officer, correctional officer, or correctional probation officer, in order to receive workers’ compensation benefits under Chapter 440 of the Florida Statutes for any condition or impairment of health caused by tuberculosis, heart disease, or hypertension, the burden will be on you to establish to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, based on objective relevant medical findings, that the workplace was the major contributing cause — meaning more than 50% — of your condition or impairment of health. See section 440.09(1), Florida Statutes. This can be a daunting task.

If, however, you are a firefighter or any law enforcement officer, correctional officer, or correctional probation officer, “[A]ny condition or impairment of health … caused by tuberculosis, heart disease, or hypertension resulting in total or partial disability or death shall be presumed to have been accidental and to have been suffered in the line of duty….” See section 112.18(1)(a), Florida Statutes. This is a game changer.

Two conditions apply which keep the presumption from being an absolute:

  1. The “firefighter or law enforcement officer must have successfully passed a physical examination upon entering into any such service as a firefighter or law enforcement officer, which examination failed to reveal any evidence of any such condition.” Section 112.18(1)(a), Florida Statutes.
  2. The presumption can be overcome by a showing that the condition or impairment was not accidental and suffered in the line of duty. Section 112.18(1)(a), Florida Statutes.

The “firefighter or law enforcement officer must have successfully passed a physical examination upon entering into any such service as a firefighter or law enforcement officer, which examination failed to reveal any evidence of any such condition.”

In City of Homestead/Preferred Gov’t Claims Solutions v. Foust, 242 So.3d 1169 (Fla. 1st DCA 2018), even though a law enforcement officer (LEO) had undergone a physical before becoming an auxilary LEO, he was denied compensation for both heart disease and hypertension because he had not undergone a physical examination upon entering into service as a full-time LEO.

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UBER-EATS-167x300We represent a young man who was severely injured in a roadway accident while making a delivery for Uber Eats. He was struck by a phantom motor vehicle (i.e., unidentified vehicle) while riding his bicycle and left to die by the side of the road. He was discovered and transported to Ryder Trauma Center, where he underwent emergency surgery including a craniotomy. Part of his skull has been permanently replaced by a metal plate.

Uber Eats has denied him all benefits.

Uber claims that its Florida operators are independent contractors. Because true independent contractors are not employees, they are not entitled to Florida workers’ compensation benefits (see 440.02(15)(d)). Workers’ compensation would cover medical and indemnity (i.e., wages) benefits. Our young client, who was a senior in high school when this event happened, has received neither through Uber, a multi-billion dollar company. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

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calculatorIt is not unusual for entities other than the workers’ compensation insurance carrier to pay medical expenses following a work-related accident. The most common payors are health insurance carriers, Medicare, and Medicaid. (PIP (a/k/a “No Fault”) insurance also pays if the accident involves motor vehicles, but since their rights are different than those of the other entities mentioned above for purposes of this blog, PIP will not be addressed in this blog.)

Since workers’ compensation is supposed to be the primary payor — PIP can add a wrinkle to this concept. See section 627.736(4), Florida Statutes — the other entities are entitled to reimbursement for the payments they have made. How the reimbursement is made depends on when, during the life of the workers’ compensation case, the payment is made. If it is made post-settlement, the payment is typically made as part of a negotiated agreement between the entities and the injured worker’s attorney. This is always the situation when the workers’ compensation employer/carrier denies responsibility for the accident and injuries throughout the entire case. Alternatively, when the carrier has accepted compensability of the claim it may agree as part of the negotiated workers’ compensation settlement to satisfy the liens. In this circumstance, hold harmless language should be included in the settlement agreement to protect the claimant in case the carrier fails to be proactive in resolving the liens and the entities come after the claimant for repayment.

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bankruptcy-300x300Every citizen of this state should know that the only thing compelling personal injury liability insurance companies to voluntarily pay claims is the threat of being sued for bad faith.

Liability insurance companies have a legal obligation to act in the best interests of their insureds. Boston Old Colony Ins. Co. v. Gutierrez, 386 So.2d 783 (Fla. 1980) (An insurer who assumes the defense of the insured also assumes a duty to act in good faith and with due regard to the interests of the insured.) More specifically, in actions by third parties against the insured, the insurer must act in good faith and be diligent in its effort to negotiate a settlement within policy limits. Auto Mutual Indemnity Co. v. Shaw, 134 Fla. 815, 184 So. 852 (1938). If the carrier fails to do so and a final judgment is entered against its insured for an amount in excess of the policy limit, in a subsequent bad faith action the carrier may be forced to satisfy the excess judgment and pay attorney’s fees and costs. The excess can be many multiples of the policy limit, sometimes in the millions of dollars. The reasoning behind bad faith jurisprudence is that the carrier, by failing to adjust the claim in good faith, has exposed its policyholder to an otherwise avoidable financial burden.

Insurance carriers want to believe that Chapter 7 discharges extinguish their bad faith liability because the insured is not harmed by or liable for the excess verdict. In Camp v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 616 So.2d 12 (Fla., 1993), the Florida Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

There are three types of bankruptcies, Chapter 7, 11, and 13.

  • Chapter 7. This chapter of the Bankruptcy Code involves liquidation” – the sale of a debtor’s nonexempt property and the distribution of the proceeds to creditors.
  • Chapter 11. This chapter of the Bankruptcy Code generally provides for reorganization, usually involving a corporation or partnership. A chapter 11 debtor usually proposes a plan of reorganization to keep its business alive and pay creditors over time. People in business or individuals can also seek relief in chapter 11.
  • Chapter 13. This chapter of the Bankruptcy Code provides for adjustment of debts of an individual with regular income. Chapter 13 allows a debtor to keep property and pay debts over time, usually three to five years.

Camp involved a medical malpractice case where the injured party obtained a three million dollar verdict after the the carrier failed to settle the case for the defendant doctor’s $250,000 insurance policy limit. Before the verdict was rendered, the defendant doctor filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This put an automatic stay on the malpractice proceedings. While the case was under the stay order, the bankruptcy court granted a discharge that shielded the doctor from personal liability for any claims pending against him as of the date of his bankruptcy filing. Thereafter, the bankruptcy court authorized Camp, the injured party, to proceed with her lawsuit for the purpose of liquidating her claim in the bankruptcy case. (She requested relief from the stay by filing a motion under Bankruptcy Rules 4001 and 9014, showing cause as specified in 11 U.S.C. Sec. 362(d).) At the same time, however, the bankruptcy court specifically ruled that the doctor would be not be personally liable for any judgment Camp obtained against him in her state court lawsuit.

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doctorA patient’s medical records enjoy a confidential status by the right to privacy in Article I, Section 23 of the Florida Constitution. State v. Johnson, 814 So. 2d 390, 393 (Fla. 2002). “Florida law, however, also recognizes that this confidentiality right is not absolute, and provides for the disclosure of medical records pursuant to subpoena in criminal and civil cases.” See Estate of Carrillo v. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, (S.D. Fla., 2012).

Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.280(a)(1) contains the basic guidance language in civil cases for the disclosure of confidential records.

(1) In General. Parties may obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, that is relevant to the subject matter of the pending action, whether it relates to the claim or defense of the party seeking discovery or the claim or defense of any other party…. It is not ground for objection that the information sought will be inadmissible at the trial if the information sought appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.

When it comes to confidential medical records, “the right to discovery in a legal proceeding must be balanced against the individual’s competing privacy interests to prevent an undue invasion of privacy.” See McEnany v. Ryan, 44 So. 3d 245, 247 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2010). In Friedman v. Heart Inst. of Port St. Lucie, 863 So.2d 189, 194 (Fla. 2003), the Florida Supreme Court instructed trial courts that in exercising their discretion to balance the competing interests, they must be guided by the principles of relevancy and practicality.

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doctorCivil disputes arising from death due to negligence are governed by statutes 768.16-768.26, known as the “Florida Wrongful Death Act.” Section 768.17 sets forth the legislative intent of the Act:

“It is the public policy of the state to shift the losses resulting when wrongful death occurs from the survivors of the decedent to the wrongdoer. Sections 768.16-768.26 are remedial and shall be liberally construed.”

In all fairness, section 768.17 should read as follows:

With the exception of cases involving medical negligence, it is the public policy of the state to shift the losses resulting when wrongful death occurs from the survivors of the decedent to the wrongdoer. Sections 768.16-768.26 are remedial and shall be liberally construed.” (Language in bold added to make the point of this blog.)

Consider these scenarios:

Scenario No. 1:

Sixty five year old Tom was killed when his vehicle was struck from behind by a Coca Cola truck. Single, he is survived by two adult children over the age of 25. Tom’s children filed suit against Coca Cola and settled the case for a substantial sum of money. Most of the money was paid as compensation for their immense pain and suffering.

Sixty five year old Dick died on the operating table due to a surgeon’s negligence. Single, he is survived by two adult children over the age of 25. Because of an exception contained in Florida’s Wrongful Death Act, Dick’s children did not have a right to be compensated for their immense pain and suffering. The negligent surgeon was able to walk away scot free.

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calculatorFlorida workers injured in the course and scope of their employment may end up receiving simultaneously both workers’ compensation indemnity (money) benefits under Florida Statute 440.15 and Social Security Disability benefits under 42 U.S.C. s. 423. When this happens, Federal law and Florida law provide that the combined benefits shall not exceed 80 percent of the claimant’s pre-disability earnings. See 42 U.S.C. s. 424a and s. 440.15(9)(a).

The Federal law authorizes each state to enact legislation permitting employers and their workers’ compensation insurance companies (“E/C”), rather than the Social Security Administration, to take the offset. Regnier v. Department of Labor & Indus. of Wash., 110 Wash.2d 60, 749 P.2d 1299, 1300-01 (1988) (en banc). Florida has enacted such “reverse offset” legislation. See section 440.15(9), Florida Statutes.

Injured workers’ lawyers are entitled to fees for services rendered in obtaining 440.15 indemnity benefits. Where there is no basis for the E/C to pay the fees, the Judge of Compensation Claims (“JCC”) may order that the fees be withdrawn from the claimant’s periodic workers’ compensation indemnity payment.

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calendar-1192688-300x230Workers’ compensation employers and carriers (“E/C”) “shall furnish to the employee … medically necessary remedial treatment, care and attendance….” See s. 440.13(2)(a), Florida Statutes.

440.13(1)(k) defines “medically necessary” as follows:

“Medically necessary” or “medical necessity” means any medical service or medical supply which is used to identify or treat an illness or injury, is appropriate to the patient’s diagnosis and status of recovery, and is consistent with the location of service, the level of care provided, and applicable practice parameters. The service should be widely accepted among practicing health care providers, based on scientific criteria, and determined to be reasonably safe. The service must not be of an experimental, investigative, or research nature.

Unless medical necessity is established by operation of law, it is the Claimant’s burden to prove medical necessity. Medical necessity by operation of law arises if E/C fails to respond to a written request from an authorized health care provider for additional medical care or services within the time periods allowed in sections 440.13(3)(d) and (i). See Elmer v. Southland Corp. 17-11, 5 So.3d 754, 756 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009); see also Pearson v. BH Transfer, 163 So. 4d 1280 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015) (The medical provider’s written request can be attached to a Petition for Benefits.)  Section 440.13(3)(d) applies only to requests from doctors for referrals to other doctors and not to requests by employees. Wal Mart Stores, Inc. v. Mann, 690 So.2d 649 (Fla. 1st DCA 1997). When one health care provider refers an employee to another health care provider for treatment, section 440.13(3)(d) applies. See Wuesthoff Mem’l Hosp. v. Schmitt, 694 So.2d 145, 145 (Fla. 1st DCA 1997).

A carrier must respond, by telephone or in writing, to a request for authorization by the close of the third business day after receipt of the request. A carrier who fails to respond to a written request for authorization for referral for medical treatment by the close of the third business day after receipt of the request consents to the medical necessity for such treatment. All such requests must be made to the carrier. Notice to the carrier does not include notice to the employer.

Section 440.13(3)(i) applies to requests “for specialist consultations, surgical operations, physiotherapeutic or occupational therapy procedures, X-ray examinations, or special diagnostic laboratory tests that cost more than $1,000 and other specialty services that the department identifies by rule….”

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calculatorThe Florida Legislature meets yearly in Tallahassee, the State’s Capitol, to craft new legislation during a two month session. In an annual tradition, Republican legislators set its sights on reducing the quantity and quality of workers’ compensation benefits available to injured workers. Since 2016, those legislators have been unable to argue that workers’ compensation insurance premiums are on the rise.

As in recent years past, the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Inc. (“NCCI”), a rating organization authorized to make rate filings on behalf of workers’ compensation insurance companies in Florida pursuant to Section 627.091(4), Florida Statutes, has proposed a decrease in the overall rate level on new and renewal policies. On August 27, 2020, it proposed a 5.7% reduction to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation. Following a review of the data and public comments, the Office of Insurance Regulation ordered a 6.6% reduction, a difference of nearly 14%. The reduction shall become effective January 1, 2021.

Despite this good news, Republican legislators are still expected to challenge the rights of injured workers. One of their favorite tactics is to prevent lawyers who represent injured employees from being reasonably compensated for their efforts. With the help of then Governor Jeb Bush, this goal was accomplished in 2002. It took 13 years for the Claimant’s bar to level the playing field.

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