Court rules Fla. workers' comp. attorneys entitled to 'reasonable' fees

By Chris Rizo | Oct 23, 2008

Florida Supreme Court building

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline)-The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a lawyer representing an injured worker is entitled to reasonable fees, sparking a sharp rebuke from the state Chamber of Commerce.

Emma Murray, the claimant in a workers' compensation case, challenged a 2003 Florida law that capped the fees for lawyers who represent injured workers.

In their decision, the high court ruled that the law was unclear. The justices also ruled that Murray's lawyer was entitled to "reasonable" fees.

Murray, who claimed she was injured while working as a nurses' aide in a care facility, had her workers' compensation claim denied.

Mariner Health Care said Murray's injuries were caused by a pre-existing condition.

Port Charlotte, Fla.-based lawyer Brian Sutter sued on her behalf and won $3,244 in back wages and medical costs. The attorney said he spent about 80 hours on the case. Under the formula outlined in the 2003 law, Sutter was awarded $648 in fees.

Meanwhile, Mariner Health Care paid its attorneys about $16,000. Sutter said the state law allowed him to be paid about $8 an hour, while the opposing counsel was paid $150 an hour.

In its ruling, the justices ordered Mariner to pay Sutter's fee of about $16,000, or about $200 an hour.

Mariner -- and some business groups -- argued that the Legislature intended for the attorney fee formula to be used in all cases amid concern over the rising costs of processing of workers' compensation claims.

"We agree that delays and the enhancement of attorney fees should be controlled," the ruling said. "We expressly note, however, that the factors set forth in rule 4-1.5(b) are to be applied so as to award attorney fees for necessary legal services rendered in the processing of claims."

In a statement, David Daniel, vice president of government affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said the decision is disappointing.

"This is just another example of plaintiffs' trial lawyers attempting to bleed more attorney fees from Florida employers using our state's workers' compensation system," Daniel said.

"Unless corrected, this decision means employers will face higher workers' compensation rates and an added financial burden to the cost of doing business in our state. With a struggling economy, now is not the time to raise employer workers' compensation rates," he added.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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