Injured workers racked up nearly $186 million in approved legal fees in 2016-2017, a 36 percent increase from the previous year, a state report on the workers' compensation insurance system shows.
In all, attorneys' fees in the workers compensation system totaled nearly $440 million during the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The majority — nearly $254 million —were forked out by employers defending workers' compensation claims.
Issued by the Office of the Judges of Compensation Claims, the 2016-2017 annual report notes that $185.6 million in approved legal fees for injured workers is the highest amount paid in nearly a decade and is attributable to a 2016 Florida Supreme Court ruling.
“Clearly, there is a trend suggested of increasing claimant attorneys' fees in the wake of (the ruling),” the report, released last month, notes.
The report shows that in 2016-2017, more than $75 million in hourly fees were approved for claimants' attorneys, a nearly 200 percent increase from the $25.8 million in hourly fees that were approved the previous year.
During the same period, the report shows that fees paid to workers' compensation attorneys under legislatively approved fee caps decreased about 31 percent.
It is the second consecutive year that legal fees increased for injured workers and employers and reverses what had been a five-year trend of lower legal costs for both sides in workers' compensation cases.
Workers' compensation is a no-fault system meant to protect workers and employers. It is supposed to provide workers who are injured on the job access to medical benefits they need to be made whole. Those who are injured for at least eight days also are entitled to indemnity benefits, or lost wages. In exchange for providing those benefits, employers generally cannot be sued in court for causing injuries.
While the system is supposed to be self-executing, injured workers hire attorneys when there are disputes over the amounts of benefits they should receive.
Florida businesses faced some of the highest workers' compensation costs in the country in the early 2000s. Business interests argued that attorney involvement — legal fees in the aggregate totaled $427 million in fiscal year 2002-2003 — was the reason for the high costs.
The Legislature responded by passing a sweeping rewrite of the workers' compensation system in 2003 that, among other things, tied the recovery of plaintiff attorneys' fees to percentages of the amount of recovered benefits. The law was tweaked in 2009 to make clear that workers' compensation judges were precluded from awarding additional hourly fees for plaintiffs' attorneys.
But in a 2016 ruling known as Castellanos v. Next Door Company, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the restrictive fee caps violated injured workers' due process rights and authorized judges to award fees outside the fee schedule if adhering to it yielded unreasonable results.
Business interests lobbied the Legislature earlier this year to, at a minimum, limit the hourly rates that attorneys could charge. But lawmakers did not approve a change.
Despite the marked increase in legal costs for 2016-2017, the report notes that when adjusted for inflation, aggregate attorneys' fees in Florida workers' compensation have decreased by more than $100 million over the past 14 years.