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Supreme Court Weighs Workers Comp Battle

picture of medical insurance claim form
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida Supreme Court justices Wednesday tried to sift through arguments about the constitutionality of the state's workers-compensation insurance system --- and whether they should decide the issue.

Justices took up a case, filed by an injured nurse, that is being closely watched by business, insurance, labor and legal groups. Mark Zientz, an attorney for former Hialeah Hospital nurse Daniel Stahl, argued that the state has unfairly stripped benefits from injured workers, with much of the focus on a 2003 overhaul of the workers-compensation system that was designed to reduce employers' insurance rates.

"These benefits get cut over and over and over," Zientz told the court.

But Ken Bell, a former Supreme Court justice who represented the hospital and Sedgwick Claims Management Services, pointed to a lack of factual evidence in the record of the case that could justify a ruling that the system is unconstitutional. As an example, he said the Legislature made policy decisions in 2003 to revamp the system and address what were the highest insurance rates in the country.

"There's no evidence in the (case) record that that was done arbitrarily, capriciously or without a reasonable basis,'' Bell said.

The Stahl case is one of three challenges pending in the Supreme Court to parts of the workers-compensation system. Justices heard arguments in the other two cases more than a year ago but have not ruled.

The decades-old system is set up as something of a tradeoff: Injured workers cannot pursue civil lawsuits, but in exchange they are supposed to receive medical care and other benefits aimed at providing compensation and getting them back on the job. The Stahl case argues, at least in part, that the system has become unconstitutional because workers are giving up legal rights but are not receiving adequate benefits in return.

While questioning attorneys Wednesday, justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry made statements that indicated they shared concerns about workers' benefits being diminished.

"It's hard to deny that what's happened over the last 50 years has not been a diminution in workers-compensation benefits," Pariente said at one point.

But justices, including Pariente and Quince, also appeared to be grappling with issues raised by Bell about the procedural history of the case and an inadequate factual record.

The Supreme Court, which took up the case after the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled against Stahl, typically takes months to issue decisions.

Bell argued that Zientz is making a "kitchen sink" argument to challenge the constitutionality of the system. But Bell said the Supreme Court shouldn't make such a decision.

"He is asking this court to make a policy decision to declare that entire law ineffectual or ineffective,'' Bell said. "The court simply doesn't have the power. The issues need to be addressed. The first place to address it is in the Legislature."

But Zientz said the Supreme Court can resolve the constitutional issues.

"This is an important issue. This is something that involves tens of thousands of people who are hurt every day --- not hurt on the job but hurt by the system,'' Zientz said. "And this is the court that has to make that decision as to whether or not they continue to get hurt or whether or not we can stop that."