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  • Florida Supreme Court Upholds Exclusivity of Workers’ Compensation Benefits

Florida Supreme Court Upholds Exclusivity of Workers’ Compensation Benefits

Many workers who have been injured on the job wonder whether they can still pursue a civil action against their employer outside the workers’ compensation system. Earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court issued its opinion in Morales v. Zenith Insurance Company, SC13-696, holding that Florida’s workers’ compensation system bars injured employees from pursuing additional benefits in civil court.

The so-called “exclusivity” provision of Florida’s workers’ compensation laws dates back to a promise made between labor unions and management during the 1930s. The groups agreed that employers would provide benefits through workers’ compensation as long as the employees would be barred from seeking additional benefits outside the system. Insurance companies are well acquainted with this provision and often assert it as a defense to any lawsuit filed against an insured employer by an injured worker. 

In Morales, the employee suffered a fatal accident while working for a landscaping company. The employee’s widow agreed to a workers’ compensation settlement with the company and the company’s insurer, Zenith. As part of the settlement, the widow signed a release stating that the settlement would constitute her sole remedy.

Unbeknownst to the insurer, however, the widow had also pursued a civil action against the insurer under the portion of Zenith’s insurance policy that covered employer liability. The widow claimed that her husband’s death was the result of the landscaping company’s negligence, and that the policy provided additional benefits for damages associated with its negligent conduct. In the civil suit, the widow secured a $9 million judgment against the landscaping company. When the widow attempted to enforce the settlement, Zenith refused to pay, citing the release that the widow had signed as part of the workers’ compensation case.

Zenith removed the case to federal court and obtained a reversal of the $9 million judgment on the basis that the insurance policy contained a term reflecting the exclusivity provision of the state’s workers’ compensation law, and workers’ compensation constitutes the sole remedy for employees who are injured on the job.

The widow appealed the case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal, which noted that the law was unclear regarding whether the workers’ compensation “exclusivity” provision in an employer liability insurance policy precluded the widow from pursuing additional benefits in a civil action. The Eleventh Circuit certified the question to the Florida State Supreme Court, which essentially means that the appellate court asked the state’s highest court to decide the issue.

The Florida Supreme Court held that the exclusivity provision barred the widow from seeking additional damages through a civil action based on the employer liability policy. The court noted that the policy contained two parts:  one providing workers’ compensation coverage and the second providing employer liability coverage. The first part regarding workers’ compensation laws covered all benefits required pursuant to Florida’s workers’ compensation law.

The employer liability coverage, however, stated specifically that, while it covered damages in certain cases, it does not apply to “any obligation imposed by workers’ compensation.” In most cases, an employer liability policy covers incidents that fall outside the scope of the workers’ compensation system, such as when an employee’s or supervisor’s intentional acts cause harm to another worker.

If you have suffered an injury while you were at work, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. As the Morales case demonstrates, it is important to understand the nature and scope of your injury before pursuing a claim to ensure that you receive the benefits that you deserve. The workers’ compensation laws are complicated and can be difficult to navigate, especially while you are coping with an injury. At The Hoffman Firm, we have helped many South Florida residents bring a claim against an employer and recover compensation. Call us now at (800) 223-1866 or contact us online to set up your free consultation.

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Evan A. Hoffman

Evan A. Hoffman

Mr. Hoffman’s philosophy is "our knowledge and experience is your best defense." He has been a featured author on criminal law issues such as driving under the influence, domestic violence and illegal searches.

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