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Section 440.15(2)(a), Florida Statutes (2009)—part of the state's workers' compensation law—which cuts off disability benefits after 104 weeks to a worker who is totally disabled and incapable of working but who has not yet reached maximum medical improvement.
Plaintiff, Bradley Westphal, a fifty-three-year-old firefighter, suffered a severe lower back injury caused by lifting heavy furniture in the course of fighting a fire. As a result of the lower back injury, plaintiff experienced extreme pain and loss of feeling in his left leg below the knee and required multiple surgical procedures, including an eventual spinal fusion. Shortly after his workplace injury, plaintiff began receiving benefits pursuant to the workers' compensation law set forth in chapter 440, Florida Statutes. Specifically, the City of St. Petersburg began to provide both indemnity benefits, in the form of temporary total disability benefits pursuant to section 440.15(2), Florida Statutes and medical benefits. At the expiration of temporary total disability benefits, plaintiff was still incapable of working or obtaining employment based on the advice of his doctors and the vocational experts that examined him. In an attempt to replaced his pre-injury wages that he was losing because of his injuries, plaintiff filed a petition for benefits, claiming either further temporary disability or permanent total disability pursuant to section 440.15(1), Florida Statutes (2009).
Was the worker’s compensation statute section 440.15(1), Florida Statutes of 2009 constitutional?
The court concluded that this portion of the worker's compensation statute, Section 440.15(2)(a), Fla. Stat., which cut off disability benefits after 104 weeks to a worker who was totally disabled and incapable of working but who had not yet reached maximum medical improvement, was unconstitutional under article I, section 21, of the Florida Constitution, as a denial of the right of access to courts because it deprived an injured worker of disability benefits under these circumstances for an indefinite amount of time thereby creating a system of redress that no longer functions as a reasonable alternative to tort litigation. Also, the statute was plainly written, it did not permit the court to resort to rules of statutory construction, even to avoid an unconstitutional result. Thus, the court held that the proper remedy was the revival of the pre-1994 statute that provided for a limitation of 260 weeks of temporary total disability benefits.