Florida Supreme Court issues ruling regarding attorneys’ fees in workers’ comp cases

Oct 23, 2008

South Florida Business Journal--October 23, 2008

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that claimant attorneys are entitled to “reasonable” fees in workers’ compensation insurance cases.

The high court’s decision in Emma Murray v. Mariner Health could result in higher insurance premiums for business.

When the Florida Legislature instituted widespread reforms in workers’ compensation laws in 2003, an ambiguity was created involving how claimant attorneys’ fees should be calculated, the Supreme Court said in its decision.

One section of the law instituted a fee formula based on contingency, while another section stated only that a fee should be reasonable, but it set no criteria for how to determine a reasonable fee.

The court ruled that factors that should be considered in calculating a reasonable claimant’s attorney fee should include the time and labor involved, the complexity of the case and the skill required to perform the necessary legal services.

The Supreme Court quashed an appellate court decision in Murray v. Mariner, which had upheld the contingency fee of $8.11 an hour for a claimant attorney who spent 84.4 hours winning benefits of $3,224 for an injured worker, and remanded the case to the judge of compensation claims to award a fee of $16,000 to the attorney.

Business advocacy groups have warned that a decision that would increase attorneys’ fees in workers’ compensation cases would result in increased insurance costs for Florida employers.

The National Federation of Independent Business/Florida and Florida Chamber of Commerce both expressed disappointment with Thursday’s ruling.

“Workers’ compensation rates have dropped over 50 percent in the last five years and were scheduled to continue to decrease,” NFIB/Florida Executive Director Bill Herrle said. “However, this Supreme Court ruling jeopardizes the low rates, which is devastating for small business owners. Losing the attorneys’ fee schedule will cost the small business community hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when they can least afford it.”

David Daniel, Florida Chamber of Commerce vice president of government affairs,called the ruling “just another example of plaintiffs’ trial lawyers attempting to bleed more attorney fees from Florida employers using our state’s workers’ compensation system.”

The decision comes the same day that the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation received a proposal for an 18.6 rate reduction from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, which produces and files rates for insurers in many states.

Herrle said he expects the NCCI to submit an emergency rate filing in response to this opinion, which would override the pending rate reduction filed today.

Meantime, the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation said it is reviewing the court’s decision “to determine its potential impact on the workers’ compensation system as a whole and on future workers’ compensation insurance rates in Florida.”