Firefighter wins workers’ comp benefits in appeals decision that rocks state

We therefore conclude that the 104-week limitation on temporary total disability benefits violates Florida’s constitutional guarantee that justice will be administered without denial or delay.

Those are the words of Florida’s First District Court of Appeals, penned by Judge Brad Thomas in response to an injured firefighter’s appeal regarding his workers’ compensation benefits.

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In 2009, firefighter Bradley Westphal was injured in the line of duty. While answering a routine call, he suffered a catastrophic back injury. After thirty years of service as a firefighter who had served on St. Petersburg’s marine rescue team, hazmat team, and SWAT team (as a medic), Westphal was stunned to find that the city felt no compunction to assist him in his time of need.

Westphal underwent three surgeries and came away with a game leg, a cane, a brace, and chronic pain. Given these circumstances, you’d think his workers’ compensation doctor –picked by the city of St. Petersburg– would declare him unfit to return to duty because he’d reached a point known as Maximum Medical Improvement (MMI). MMI means, essentially, that someone is as healed as they’re ever going to get. Without this ruling, Westphal could not receive any benefits when he reached the 104-week cap imposed under state law. Incidentally, Florida’s cap on workers’ compensation benefits is one of the lowest in the nation.

Left in something of a medical limbo that the Court referred to as a “legal twilight zone of economic and familial ruin,” Westphal’s benefits ran out in 2011, forcing him to withdraw from the city deferred retirement program (at an estimated cost of over $200K) and start drawing his pension early so as to pay his bills. At the same time, the city of St. Petersburg spent money on court proceedings and surveillance of the firefighter; they offered no solution or relief to the thirty-year veteran, even in the face of several settlement proposals by the Plaintiff.

“They tried to starve me out,” Westphal said. “They just kept fighting me, hoping that I would give up. I wasn’t going to let that happen, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”

Judge Thomas, who was joined by judges Marguerite Davis and Philip Padovano, called the entire situation ‘repugnant’ and wrote that there’s “simply no public necessity, much less an overpowering one, that has been demonstrated to justify such a fundamentally unjust system of redress for injury. The natural consequence of such a system of legal redress is potential economic ruination of the injured worker, with all the terrible consequences that this portends for the worker and his or her family.”

Judge Padovano, during oral arguments, posed Assistant City Attorney Kim Proano with the very direct question, “You see the point, don’t you? There is a point,” he continued, “at which cutting back on these remedies becomes a constitutional problem.”

In lifting the 104-week limit, the Court effectively restored the prior limit of 260 weeks, which has rocked the rest of the state. It will be interesting to see how Florida proceeds from here, as the state is known for its Draconian workers’ compensation laws that unapologetically favor insurers over injured workers.

Public servants should not be subjected to this sort of indignity and this stunning lack of support from their municipalities. If you are a Georgia firefighter or police officer injured in the line of duty and feel like your benefits and care are falling short, contact us. We are experienced Atlanta workers’ compensation attorneys, and we believe our public servants deserve the very best medical care and financial compensation in times of need.

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