Articles Posted in Personal Injury

P1010047-300x225We recently resolved a case involving a reimbursement dispute under an Occupational Health & Disability Insurance Policy. Our client, an independent trucker, had sustained catastrophic injuries from being struck by a motor vehicle as he was changing a tire while parked in a gore on I-95 in Florida. He was hospitalized in intensive care and was unable to return to work for nearly two years. Thankfully, he was covered under the insurance policy, which paid his medical bills and lost wages.

The insurance policy contained language entitling the carrier to be reimbursed in full from any money our client was paid as a result of the accident.

We sued two individuals and a company seeking damage compensation for our client. After litigating the case for more than three years, we secured a reasonable settlement. We held the money in trust pending resolution of the Occupational Health & Disability Insurance carrier’s reimbursement claim. Unable to work out the claim amicably, we filed a petition to resolve the claim with the court that handled the underlying personal injury case. (Anticipating problems in resolving the reimbursement claim amicably, we asked the court to retain jurisdiction for that eventuality. Doing so allowed us to keep a smart judge and avoid a new filing fee.)

The policy contained the following language: “The Policy is governed by the laws of the jurisdiction in which it is delivered.” The insurance carrier was home based in another state and the policy was made available to large companies throughout the United States who used independent drivers like our client, through a trust company based in Washington, DC. The carrier argued that Washington, DC law applied to the reimbursement claim since the policy was delivered to the trust in DC. Under DC law, the terms of the policy would control. This would effectively enable the carrier to recover 100% of the underlying settlement without our client netting anything. (The underlying case had exceedingly difficult liability issues. The most at-fault person, who was intoxicated, had no insurance and died penniless before we got the case. We ended up suing a separate company, which was responsible for highway assistance, for failing to have proper warning lights on its vehicle. We received a sizeable settlement, but the amount paid by the OH&D carrier was more sizeable.) We argued that Florida law, in particular, Florida Statute 768.76(4), applied to the reimbursement dispute. Under this statute, the court would be allowed to reduce the reimbursement amount owed by taking various equitable factors into consideration including procurement costs and comparing the settlement amount to the full value of the case. See Jeffrey P. Gale, P.A. // Resolving Health and Disability Insurance Liens in Personal Injury Cases Under Florida Statute 768.76. 

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Think of an injury case like navigating a ship from one port to another. Signing up the case is the equivalent of throwing off the ropes and pulling safely away from the dock. Being at sea is analogous to litigation. Some days you will eat the bear and some days the bear will eat you. Stay your course. Invariably, chart adjustments will be necessary, but the final destination always remains the same: favorable resolution of the case. Settling the case equates to pulling into port. However, it is not the last act. The ship must be successfully docked and secured. The Settlement Release is part of this final act. It must be done properly to avoid damaging the ship.

Our law firm handles both workers’ compensation and personal injury/wrongful death cases. It is not uncommon to have both types of cases arising out of one accident. For example, we represent a gentleman who suffered numerous catastrophic injuries in a motor vehicle crash. Since the accident happened in the course and scope of his employment, he was covered under workers’ compensation. We recently settled the workers’ compensation case. The common law liability case, against the second vehicle’s owner and our client’s co-worker [brought under a theory of gross negligence to overcome workers’ compensation immunity], remains ongoing.

As part of the workers’ compensation mediated settlement, the workers’ compensation carrier agreed that the settlement did not affect the liability case against the third party or the co-worker. Nevertheless, the General Release it submitted to us contained wording that could be construed as preventing our client from proceeding against the co-worker. We have reworded it to avoid this outcome.

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cemetery1We are representing the surviving spouse of an elderly gentleman who fell and broke his hip due to the negligence of a condominium association. While hospitalized for the serious injury, he contracted Covid 19 and died. Our claim against the condo association is for his wrongful death rather just for the broken hip. We are doing so on the authority of Stuart v. Hertz Corp., 351 So.2d 703 (Fla. 1977).

In Stuart v. Hertz Corp., 351 So.2d 703 (Fla. 1977), a car crash victim’s injuries were made worse by the negligence of a treating doctor. The victim was allowed to claim damages for the enhanced injuries from the parties liable for the underlying car crash case.

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dollarsIt is common for health and disability (lost wages) insurance companies to pay benefits to their insureds who have been injured through the negligence of others. Most of the insurance policies contain language granting the insurance company a right of reimbursement for the money it has paid out from the proceeds recovered by the insured in the personal injury case for the same losses.

How much must be repaid depends on policy language and who is paying the settlement or judgment in the personal injury case.

Many of the insurance policies provide that the carrier has the right to be reimbursed in full up to the amount recovered in the liability case before the insured and the insured’s attorney receive penny one. When the compensation is paid by a tortfeasor, who is the person or entity responsible for causing the harm, reimbursement is determined by the formula set forth in  section 768.76(4), Florida Statutes. The statutory formula applies even where the insurance policy calls for full reimbursement to the carrier first. In Ingenix v. Ham, 35 So.3d 949 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2010), Gerald Ham’s health insurer, UnitedHealthcare, paid almost all of Ham’s medical bills relating to a medical procedure that ultimately resulted in his death. After settling with the medical providers (i.e., tortfeasors) in a medical malpractice lawsuit, Ham’s estate contended that it was only required to reimburse UnitedHealthcare a reduced amount according to the formula set out in section 768.76(4), Florida Statutes (2008). UnitedHealthcare took the position that it was entitled to full reimbursement in accordance with the language of its policy. The court held that section 768.76(4) controlled, limiting UnitedHealthcare’s reimbursement to the formula under section 768.76(4).

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maze2The difficulties and limitations associated with medical negligence claims are many. The list includes:

  • Medical malpractice claims have a shorter statute of limitations than ordinary negligence claims — two years versus four years. See § 95.11(4)(b) and § 95.11(3)(a).
  • Prospective medical malpractice plaintiffs must comply with complex and costly presuit requirements, as set forth in chapter 766, Florida Statutes, before filing a medical malpractice suit, which includes conducting “an investigation to ascertain that there are reasonable grounds to believe” that medical malpractice occurred. Ordinary negligence claims do not have these requirements. Id. § 766.203(2)see generally id. § 766.201-.212.
  • The restrictions that chapter 766 places on medical malpractice plaintiffs’ ability to prove their cases persist even after a lawsuit is filed, such as providing specific qualifications for medical experts testifying as to the standard of care. See generally id. § 766.102.
  • Certain adult children (over the age of 25) whose parents die as a result of medical negligence are barred from recovering lost parental companionship, instruction, and guidance and for mental pain and suffering. See § 768.21(8). This restriction does not apply if the death results from ordinary negligence. See § 768.21(3).
  • Certain parents of adult children who die as a result of medical negligence are barred from recovering for mental pain and suffering. See § 768.21(8). This restriction does not apply if the death results from ordinary negligence. See § 768.21(4).

“Because of the statutory restrictions and requirements that apply only to medical malpractice claims, any ‘doubt’ as to whether a claim is for ordinary negligence or medical malpractice should be ‘generally resolved in favor of the claimant.”‘ J.B. v. Sacred Heart Hosp. of Pensacola, 635 So.2d 945, 947 (Fla. 1994).

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ladder1We currently represent an elderly woman who was knocked down in the hallway of her condominium building by a large, unleashed dog. She fell and struck her head on the ground. In the days following the event, she had headaches and was lightheaded. While taking a shower, she fainted. As a result of this event, she was hospitalized then transferred to a facility for a month of rehabilitation. She is now receiving 24/7 attendant care at home.

Are the injuries sustained from the subsequent fall compensable?

Something similar happened in Eli Witt Cigar & Tobacco Co. v. Matatics, 55 So. 2d 549 (Fla. 1951). The Plaintiff/Appellee had suffered a brain concussion and other injuries in a motorcycle accident. Within weeks of the accident, he climbed a ladder to reach his attic. While descending, he suffered a dizzy spell and fell to the concrete floor. His injuries from this fall were permanent and catastrophic — paralysis in his lower and upper extremities.

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massage-200x300Personal Injury Protection (PIP) is mandatory insurance coverage for Florida motor vehicle owners. It covers a limited amount of medical expenses and lost wages, typically $10,000 total.

The PIP statute,  s. 627.736, is particular as to which types of medical providers may seek reimbursement. In Geico General Insurance Co. v. Beacon Healthcare Center, Inc. (Fla. 3rd DCA; opinion filed February 26, 2020), the court confirmed that “a person who is licensed as a massage therapist, but not licensed as a physical therapist,” may not be reimbursed by PIP.

A number of GEICO insureds sought treatment at Beacon Healthcare Center, Inc. During their initial consultations, the treating physician (and Beacon’s medical director) prescribed therapy modalities that were provided by massage therapists who held massage therapy licenses, but did not hold licenses in physical therapy. The massage therapists were not directly supervised on site by either a licensed physical therapist or by a medical physician when they performed the treatments.

maze2-300x225Florida statute 440.11 precludes workers injured on the job from recovering damages from the employer at law or in admiralty on account of such injury or death. Damages at law or in admiralty include non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. It is a common law remedy.

Damages for pain and suffering are not available under Florida’s workers’ compensation system. Basically, workers’ compensation benefits are limited to medical and indemnity. Statute 440.10 extends the 440.11 immunity to contractors and subcontractors on the same project who are not the injured worker’s actual employer. They are considered statutory employers.

It is every personal injury lawyer’s job to maximize his or her client’s recovery. In most workplace accidents, the injured worker is limited to workers’ compensation benefits, leaving the personal injury lawyer without a role. (Our law firm handles both personal injury and workers’ compensation cases.) This is not only because of 440.10 and 440.11. In some instances, for example, there is nobody to blame for the accident other than the employee.

Are there exceptions to 440.10 and 440.11? Yes. To succeed against the actual employer, the employee must demonstrate that the employer’s conduct rose to the level of intentional conduct substantially certain to result in injury. To make good on a case against a 440.10 entity, the employee must demonstrate the following:

1) circumstances constituting an imminent or clear and present danger amounting to a more than normal or usual peril, 2) knowledge or awareness of the imminent danger on the part of the tortfeasor, and 3) an act or omission that evinces a conscious disregard of the consequences. Kline v. Rubio, 652 So. 2d 964, 965-66 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995).

Under certain circumstances, an employee may pursue these common law remedies after receiving workers’ compensation benefits. At least one case, Vellejos v. Lan Cargo SA, appears to have allowed the pursuit after the workers’ compensation case was settled and a broad release was signed. (Vellejos, the injured worker, sued a subcontractor alleging gross negligence. The appellate court said he had the right to do so, but upheld the trial court’s summary judgment dismissal on the basis that, as a matter of law, no reasonable jury could conclude that the facts constituted gross negligence. The opinion is confusing and has not been cited as authority by any other appellate courts.)

A person injured while working has the right to elect between two different remedies — workers’ compensation and common law — for compensation. “However … the point upon which a worker’s action with regard to a compensation claim constitutes an election of the workers’ compensation remedy to the exclusion of a civil action is not entirely clear.” Jones v. Martin Electronics, Inc., 932 So. 2d 1100, 1105 (Fla. 2006). Florida courts have clearly stated that the “[m]ere acceptance of some compensation benefits . . . is not enough to constitute an election” of remedies. Velez v. Oxford Dev. Co., 457 So.2d 1388, 1390 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984) (quoting Whitney-Fidalgo Seafoods, Inc. v. Beukers, 554 P.2d 250, 254 (Alaska 1976)); see also Wheeled Coach Indus., Inc. v. Annulis, 852 So.2d 430, 432 (Fla. 5th DCA 2003)Hernandez v. United Contractors Corp., 766 So.2d 1249, 1252 (Fla. 3d DCA 2000)Lowry v. Logan, 650 So.2d 653, 657 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995); Wishart v. Laidlaw Tree Serv., Inc., 573 So.2d 183, 184 (Fla. 2d DCA 1991).

There are also the cases where, because the compensability of the claim or the status of the employee at the time of the injury was contested, an election was not made: Vasquez v. Sorrells Grove Care, Inc., 962 So. 2d 411, 415 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007) (noting that the carrier contested the compensability of the claim and whether Vasquez was an employee); Hernandez v. United Contractors Corp., 766 So. 2d 1249, 1252 (Fla. 3d DCA 2000) (holding that because the carrier contested the compensability of the claim and took the position that there was no evidence that the accident arose out of and in the course and scope of Hernadez’s employment, there was no conclusion on the merits); Lowry v. Logan, 650 So. 2d 653, 658 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995) (“there remain disputed issues of fact concerning whether Lowry is an [sic] covered employee or an independent contractor and whether he was injured in the course and scope of his employment”); Wright v. Douglas N. Higgins, Inc., 617 So. 2d 460, 461-62 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993) (reversing summary judgment because there was no determination that plaintiff was an employee in the workers’ compensation case); Wishart v. Laidlaw Tree Serv., Inc., 573 So. 2d 183, 184 (Fla. 2d DCA 1991) (“The critical issue of fact which must be determined by the trial judge is whether the employee was injured in the course and scope of his employment.”); Velez v. Oxford Dev. Co., 457 So. 2d 1388, 1391 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984) (reversing summary judgment because there was no determination that plaintiff was an employee in the workers’ compensation case).

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IMG_2410-207x300Florida lawyers handling accident cases are obligated to make every effort to search out all potential revenue sources to justly compensate their clients. Typically, people harmed in the workplace are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, which are furnished by employers and their workers’ compensation insurance carriers (“E/C”). Because of the legal concept of workers’ compensation immunity, which is set forth in section 440.11, Florida Statutes, in most instances workers’ compensation is the only form of compensation a worker injured on the job will receive. While workers’ compensation serves a valuable purpose, it also has limitations. The most prominent of those limitations is that compensation is never paid for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.

In some cases, the workplace injury is caused by a person or entity unrelated to the employer, commonly referred to as a “third party.” This may give the injured worker the opportunity to recover both workers’ compensation benefits from the E/C and civil law damages from the at-fault party. For example, an elevator repairman injured in a rear-end car crash while driving from one job site to another, is free to pursue civil damages against the driver, the owner of the vehicle, and the driver’s employer as the case may be. This is because none of these third party entities has workers’ compensation immunity.

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Pie-Chart-300x246It is common for medical bills incurred in Florida personal injury cases to be paid by health insurance. Some people injured in accidents also receive private disability insurance benefits. Most health and disability insurance policies afford insurance carriers subrogation or reimbursement rights against the insured who has recovered all or part of the insurance payments from a tortfeasor (the at-fault party). This means that the carrier has the right to be repaid some or all of the insurance benefits paid out.

How much must be repaid depends in large measure on the law governing the relationship between the insurer and insured. Self-funded employer policies are governed by ERISA. Non-ERISA policies and fully-insured employer policies fall under the authority of section 768.76(4), Florida Statutes. This blog addresses reimbursement under the Florida Statute.

Section 768.76(4) reads as follows:

A provider of collateral sources that has a right of subrogation or reimbursement that has complied with this section shall have a right of reimbursement from a claimant to whom it has provided collateral sources if such claimant has recovered all or part of such collateral sources from a tortfeasor. Such provider’s right of reimbursement shall be limited to the actual amount of collateral sources recovered by the claimant from a tortfeasor, minus its pro rata share of costs and attorney’s fees incurred by the claimant in recovering such collateral sources from the tortfeasor. In determining the provider’s pro rata share of those costs and attorney’s fees, the provider shall have deducted from its recovery a percentage amount equal to the percentage of the judgment or settlement which is for costs and attorney’s fees.

Most statutes require some sort of judicial intervention to establish their parameters. In Magsipoc v. Larsen, 639 So.2d 1038 (Fla. 5th DCA 1994), the application of section (4) was considered on appeal in a wrongful death case involving the repayment of health insurance benefits to the carrier.

Before dying after nearly drowning in a pool, a young child in the Magsipoc case received extensive medical care in an effort to save her life. Health insurance paid all of the medical expenses and costs (totaling $472,000). Thereafter, the child’s parents sued the pool owners on behalf of themselves and their daughter’s estate.

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