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Did Justices Up for Retention Invent New Workers' Compensation Law Out of Thin Air?

October 18, 2012 - 6:00pm

Three Florida Supreme Court justices are up for retention on the November ballot, and Sunshine State News is the only source that is examining their judicial record. In this latest installment, we explore a landmark ruling affecting workers' compensation claims.

Although Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, and Peggy Quince are insisting that voters should ignore their rulings when they head to the polls and consider only whether these justices have ever committed a crime, their critics and other legal scholars say otherwise: it is absolutely relevant to their retention that voters consider whether these justices are interpreting relevant law according to its original public meaning, or whether they are activists who ignore the law and impose their own personal moral philosophy on cases that come before them.

(For the last several weeks Sunshine State News has reached out to the three justices [who are traveling around the state to sit down with newspaper editorial boards] to interview for this series. In September, we were notified by a representative of their joint campaign that they are specifically refusing to interview with the News, which is Floridas only center-right news organization.)

Last week, we took a look at these justices ruling in the 2006 case Bush v. Holmes, which concerned the state constitutionality of private school vouchers. Today, we examine another ruling critics claim is a textbook example of judicial activism: Aguilera v. Inservices Inc. (2005).

The plaintiff in the case was one Rodrigo Aguilera, who in 1999 suffered serious injuries on the job when he was struck by an electric forklift and pushed up against a pallet. He was rushed to an emergency room, testing revealed that he had blood in his urine, he was given medication, and advised by doctors that he could return to limited work with restrictions.

Aguileras condition worsened, but his workers compensation insurance carrier, Inservices, refused repeated requests for further examination and treatment. Aguileras condition got so bad he eventually needed surgery, which was approved.

Throughout the ordeal, Aguilera never sought the emergency relief available under the Floridas Workers Compensation Act, even though he was represented by an attorney. Instead, after finally receiving approval for his surgery, Aguilera sued Inservices for the common-law tort actions of breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The trial court ruled in Aguileras favor, while the appeals court ruled that, under the Florida statutes, Inservices was immune from all tort allegations arising out of the claims process. Aguilera appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which heard his case in 2004.

Before examining how the Supreme Court ruled, it is important to see just what legal issues were at stake, and to appreciate that we need to briefly review the history behind modern workers compensation laws.

Before 1935, the only recourse a worker in Florida had to recover for a work-related accident was to sue his employer civilly for negligence. However, under the common law (i.e., the centuries-in-the making, unwritten body of law that governs tort actions unless explicitly pre-empted by statute), an employer had three nearly-unbeatable defenses available to him: (1) that the injured employee was also negligent, (2) that the employee knew of the dangers involved in the work and assumed the risks of his employment, or (3) that the injury occurred because of the negligence of a co-worker.

It was very difficult to prevail against these defenses, but if an injured employee did prevail, there were no limits to how much compensation a jury could award him from his employer.

Beginning in the early 1900s, several states began to pre-empt the common law by passing statutes regulating the terms of workers compensation. Florida passed its own such Workers Compensation Act in 1935. This Act today known as Section 440 of the Florida Statutes did away with the old common-law rules and instituted a compromise intended to benefit both employer and employee: employers would have to provide employees with workers compensation insurance to cover work-related accidents, and in turn employers and their insurance carriers would be immune from being sued in court for these injuries.

As the Florida statute itself says:

It is the intent of the Legislature that the Workers' Compensation Law be interpreted so as to assure the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker and to facilitate the worker's return to gainful re-employment at a reasonable cost to the employer. ... The workers' compensation system in Florida is based on a mutual renunciation of common-law rights and defenses by employers and employees alike.

Simple enough, right?

Four Florida Supreme Court justices including Pariente, Lewis, and Quince didnt think so. They ruled that employees have a right to sue their employers insurance carriers for allegations arising out of (and not independent of) the accident claims process, even though the Florida statutes explicitly say that the liability of a carrier to an employee or to anyone entitled to bring suit in the name of the employee shall be as provided in this chapter, which shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability. (emphasis added)

As Justice Kenneth B. Bell noted in his dissent (joined by two other justices), Section 440 of the Florida statutes explicitly states that it and it alone governs liability for work-related accidents, and provides both emergency remedies and civil and criminal penalties for special cases like Aguileras:

The [Workers Compensation] Act was intended to be the sole remedy for workers compensation injuries and ... it contains remedies specifically designed for unfortunate cases like Aguileras where a claimants attempts to obtain proper medical care for work-related injuries are thwarted by a carrier. The Act does not ignore the reality that claimants will encounter problems with carriers and the Act provides remedies.

In an appendix to his dissent, Bell detailed just all of the remedies Aguilera had available to him, and which he and his attorney failed to pursue.

Was Aguilera v. Inservices a good-faith interpretation and application of the original public intention of the states Workers Compensation Act, or was it an invention of new law based on personal disagreement or dissatisfaction with the Acts exclusivity provisions? Readers can review the courts opinion, and the two dissents,here and decide for themselves.

Reach Eric Giunta ategiunta@sunshinestatenewsor at 954-235-9116.

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