THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Cretul Keen to Restore Lawyers Fee Limit In Workers’ Comp Cases

Feb 24, 2009



THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE………House Speaker Larry Cretul said Tuesday that he hopes to have the House pass a bill in the first week of the session to restore a cap on lawyers’ fees in workers compensation cases.

That will be good news to the business community, which has made restoring the fee cap a top priority on its agenda.

Lawyer pay in workers comp cases was limited by a statutory fee schedule that was credited with helping lower workers comp premiums in Florida. But last year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the cap conflicted with a section of law that requires “reasonable” attorneys fees, saying that some fees falling under the cap wouldn’t be reasonable. Since then, insurance regulators have approved a higher workers compensation premium, citing the decision in Murray v. Mariner as the reason.

Cretul, R-Ocala, said in an interview with The News Service of Florida on Tuesday that he wanted the House to pass a bill “rebooting back to where it was pre-Supreme Court decision.

“Garrett Richter’s got an excellent bill in the Senate that looks really good,” Cretul said. “If we can mirror up with that we’ll have a great bill to send on to the governor.”

Cretul said his impetus to go into politics came after getting a workers’ compensation premium for $12,000 when he was a homebuilder.

Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, has filed a measure in the House (HB 903) that would repeal the requirement that lawyers fee be “reasonable,” restoring the attorney fee cap that existed before the Murray decision. The Flores bill and Richter’s measure (SB 2072) aren’t identical, but both remove the requirement that lawyers are entitled to reasonable fees, and restore a cap on fees.

Since the Supreme Court decision last fall, business groups have pushed hard for a bill to restore the caps.

Richter, R-Naples, said earlier this year that we was hopeful that trial lawyers, the business community and insurers would work together on a fix that all could agree on, but lawyers say it appears they’re not having much success in getting a compromise.

“We’re still continuing to talk, but at this point, it looks like it’s set up for more of a fight,” said Paul Jess of the Florida Justice Association, the trial lawyers lobby.

Jess said Flores’ bill “is simply a return to the unfair statute that was thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court. We think it’s unfair, and probably unconstitutional, to go back and reinsert that.” Jess said it may be unconstitutional because it could prevent some injured workers from being able to retain counsel in workers comp cases.

Jess noted that the stated aim of a major 2003 overhaul of the workers compensation system was to reduce premiums by 50 percent, and they’ve gone down 60 percent since then.

Even if the rates have gone up a bit since Murray, they’ve gone down so much over the last six years, that employers are still much better off, Jess argued.

“We don’t see that as a crisis, we don’t see that as a problem at all,” Jess said.

The business lobby does, however.

“The Florida Supreme Court has engaged in policy-making and has returned the system to its pre-2003 state,” Associated Industries of Florida said in a recent release about its top legislative priorities. “This must be countered legislatively or the exact same crisis will result again.”