The beleaguered Florida workers' compensation system got a shot in the arm last week when Florida's highest court ruled that workers' compensation law bars injured workers from seeking additional benefits in civil court. The Florida Supreme Court delivered the decision reinforcing the concept of workers' compensation as the exclusive remedy for workers' injured in the state. The case, Morales v. Zenith Insurance Company, had challenged that component of the Florida's workers' compensation law.

The Morales case was based on a workplace accident that resulted in a fatality. Santana Morales was killed on the job while employed by Lawns Nursery and Irrigation Designs, Inc. His widow settled a workers' compensation case with Lawns' insurer, Zenith Insurance. She then pursued a separate civil claim against Zenith, who was also the Liability carrier for Lawns, claiming her husband's death was due to Lawns' negligence.

While she initially was awarded a $9.25 million judgment, Zenith pursued an appeal, eventually resulting in the State Supreme Court decision in their favor.

The decision was written by Florida Supreme Court Justice Judge Ricky Polston. In it the court clearly sides with the exclusive remedy provisions of Florida law, saying, “In this case, the estate did not have the right to bring a tort action against Lawns. Rather, because the estate alleged that Lawns' negligence caused Morales death, its exclusive remedy was under the Florida Workers' Compensation Law.” Also contributing to the decision was the fact that Morales widow had already accepted a settlement, part of which contained an agreement barring her from pursuing tort claims. According to Florida statute, a settlement agreement under workers' comp must contain a release stating it constitutes an election of remedies by the injured parties.

While this is good news for employers and carriers in the state, this is a battle that has likely just begun.  Florida has several cases pending before the courts that challenge both exclusive remedy and the constitutionality of the system. In my view, this is part of a broader war, as there are people who truly believe that workers' compensation as an industry should no longer exist. I do not agree with that view, as what existed prior to the inception of workers' comp was, by comparison, far worse than what exists today. Still, in some ways we provide ample fodder for the industry's foes, and must be cognizant that benefits cut too close to the bone will also endanger the entire no fault status of the industry.

The no fault agreement that produced the concept of exclusive remedy also protects injured workers, even though they may be reticent to believe that. The alternative, to wait years with no benefits or support while a civil case drags on and on, is as untenable for them as open liability is for their employer. The Florida Supreme Court definitively supported the concept that brought us here.

Let us do the right things to keep that in place.

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