THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: GOP beats back compromise workers’ comp amendment

Mar 26, 2009


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 26, 2009…..The House on Thursday rejected a proposed compromise and stuck with a hard cap on plaintiffs lawyers fees in workers compensation cases, with the bill’s sponsor couching it as important economic relief for employers in a down economy.

The bill (HB 903) is now set for a full House vote, expected early next week. The bill restores a ceiling on plaintiffs attorneys fees in comp cases, reversing a Supreme Court decision last year that knocked a fee schedule off the books. Undoing that decision – Murray v. Mariner – has emerged as perhaps the top priority of the business community in this year’s legislative session, with businesses saying they fear a return of higher insurance rates without the fix.

Before the rate cap was put in place in 2003, “we had one of the highest workers comp (insurance) rates in the country,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. “Since then, workers compensation rates have come down considerably – they’ve come down about 60 percent.” Flores and the business community say several factors brought those rates down, but a limit on attorneys fees was a key element.

The bill has sailed easily through the House, with Speaker Larry Cretul saying it’s one of his top priorities, although it’s prospects in the Senate aren’t as certain.

But on Thursday, the Republican majority in the House had to get over another hurdle and dispense with a renegade compromise proposal from one of their own. The compromise language was supported by trial lawyers who are against the Flores bill.

The compromise amendment, brought forward by Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami, would have set out an attorney fee schedule starting at 25 percent of the first $5,000 of benefits and sliding down as benefits go up. But it also would have allowed that only if the fee awarded to the plaintiff’s lawyer was no less than the fee paid by the employer or insurer to its lawyer to defend against the claim.

The amendment had another key element: it spelled out that no attorneys fee awards could be recouped by the insurer in their rates, a provision that Planas said would keep rates from going up – the main aim of the business community.

“This amendment is not going to give any insurance companies any excuse to raise their rates,” said Planas. “If I believed that my amendment would raise rates, I would not offer it. But what I do care about is access to the courts.”

Opponents of the Flores bill – including police and firefighters in addition to trial lawyers – have said that they worry that if lawyers fees are again capped too low, attorneys won’t take difficult workers comp cases because the amount of work would make them big money losers for attorneys.

“We can make it so nobody gets a rate increase and the people who are injured still get fair representation,” said Planas. He also urged his colleagues to support his amendment because he thought it would make the bill “more palatable” in the Senate, and less likely to be overturned by the courts.

Democrats jumped on board with the Planas amendment, and urged its approval.

In an unusual move, Cretul elected without being asked to have the vote publicly recorded on the board because of the controversial nature of the bill. Usually, most amendments are voted on by voice, unless someone asks for a recorded vote.

The Planas amendment failed 45-69 with most Republicans voting against it.

The bill is now ready for a final vote in the House, which next meets on Tuesday and could vote then. It would then go to the Senate.