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First-Responder PTSD Benefits Claim Rejected By Appeals Court

The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue’s workers’ comp carrier opposed the claim, saying it was filed too late. A judge sided with the employee, but a Florida appeals court overturned the decision.

More than two years after lawmakers passed a measure to expand benefits for first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, an appeals court Monday rejected a claim because it said a Palm Beach County Fire Rescue crew member did not file it in time.

Andrew Wilkes was diagnosed with PTSD in 2019 after going diving with friends and then having a dream that a drowned boy was his son, according to the ruling by a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal. Wilkes had witnessed the attempted rescue of the drowned boy in 2015 while working.

In 2018, the Legislature passed a measure that expanded workers’ compensation benefits to allow first responders to obtain lost wages for post-traumatic stress disorder. Previously, they had been limited to medical benefits.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier opposed the claim, saying it was filed too late.

Judge of Compensation Claims Carol Stephenson sided with Wilkes in May 2020, but the appeals court Monday overturned that decision. It pointed to part of the 2018 law that said claims have to be “properly noticed within 52 weeks after the qualifying event.”

The court ruled that the “qualifying event” was the 2015 drowning incident. As a result, the claim filed in 2019 was barred.

“(The) Florida Legislature unambiguously chose the qualifying event date as the measuring point for filing a timely claim, and there is no evidence of any contrary legislative intent,” said the seven-page ruling by Judges Clay Roberts, Timothy Osterhaus and Harvey Jay.

“The Legislature is presumed to know the law and obviously could have chosen the date of disablement - or some other date - as the starting point for noticing a claim under the first responder statute, but it did not. And because the language of the statutory filing requirement for a claim is plain and unambiguous, the rules of statutory construction simply do not come into play to suggest any other meaning other than the time for filing the claim here expired 52 weeks after the 2015 qualifying event.”