Workers’ Compensation Legislation Awaits House Vote
Mar 27, 2009
Above: State Representative Anitere Flores (R-Miami) gestures as she defends CS/HB 903 when the measure was considered on the House floor Thursday, March 26, 2009. (House photo by Mark Foley)
Speaker: HB 903 A “Critical Issue”
During a media conference held on March 27, 2009, House Speaker Larry Cretul discussed several critical issues moving through the legislative process during Florida’s 2009 Regular Legislative Session.
Specifically, Speaker Cretul addressed the importance of passing workers’ compensation reform legislation. Referencing House Bill 903 relating to Attorney’s Fees in Workers’ Compensation Cases by State Representative Anitere Flores, which is currently awaiting third reading in the House of Representatives, Speaker Cretul also briefly discussed the issue of property insurance.
He noted that State Representative Bryan Nelson will spearhead a bill that will address, but not be limited to, Citizens Property Insurance Corporation rates and the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. He also stated that Speaker Pro Tempore Ron Reagan will be involved in the property insurance negotiations as the related proposals move through the legislative process.
In closing, Speaker Cretul finally addressed the State Budget, noting that it remains the Session’s number one priority.
House Majority Office: HB 903 Passage A “Top Priority”
The House Majority Office issued a memo on HB 903, calling its passage a ” . . . top priority . . . to get Florida’s economy going and . . . (protect) jobs in Florida.”
A copy of the memo is attached for your review.
House Debates HB 903
The Florida House of Representatives debated House Bill 903 relating to Attorney’s Fees in Workers’ Compensation Caes by State Representative Anitere Flores on March 26, 2009.
The bill, which would restore the cap on attorneys’ fees that existed in Florida law prior to the Murray v. Mariner Health Supreme Court decision that removed it, was described by Representative Flores as necessary to support Florida businesses, which cannot afford to pay higher workers’ compensation insurance rates that would result without the bill’s passage during these tough economic times.
Democrats questioned the bill. An amendment that was similar to language presented by the Trial Lawyers Association during the committee process was offered by State Representative J.C. Planas.
Representative Planas stated that the amendment would have reached a “middle ground that avoided rate increases but still enabled access to the courts.”
The amendment calls for carriers or employers to pay attorney’s fees equal to 25 percent of the first $5,000 of the amount of the benefits secured, 20 percent of the next $5,000 of the amount of the benefits secured, and 15 percent of the remaining amount of the benefits secured; provided, however, that the attorney’s fee is not less than the fee paid by the employer or carrier to their ownm attorneys in defense of the claim.
Representative Planas’ amendment also set forth that payment of attorney’s fees may not be recouped by any carrier in a rate base, premium, or any rate filing.
The amendment was defeated on a 45-69 vote, with a majority of the Democrats voting for the Planas amendment.
Due to the controversial nature of HB 903, House Speaker Larry Cretul opted to have a board vote on the amendment so there was no question of the vote outcome.
The bill is expected to be heard and voted upon during the early part of next week (March 30).
Media Coverage of HB 903 Floor Debate from The News Service of Florida
News Service of Florida media coverage of the bill’s debate on the House Floor today is reprinted below.
GOP Beats Back Compromise Workers’ Comp Amendment
By DAVID ROYSE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
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.
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