Florida Supreme Court Archives - Page 7 of 39 - Florida Politics

Associated Industries seeks public comment on workers’ comp rates

Associated Industries of Florida moved Tuesday to build public support behind a fix for rising workers’ compensation insurance rates that business interests see as a threat to the state’s economy.

The lobby solicited comments from the public “on how Florida can restore a stable, self-executing, and affordable workers’ compensation system as the Florida Legislature intended,” according to a press release.

Floridians can comment on the situation here.

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation on Sept. 27 approved a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation rates, blaming Florida Supreme Court rulings lifting limits on attorney fees in claims litigation and removing a limit on temporary total disability payments.

AIF organized a Florida Workers’ Compensation Strategic Task Force, chaired by lobby president and chief executive officer Tom Feeney, to look for a legislative remedy to the court rulings.

Feeney cited a study by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services indicating Florida will rank No. 23 among the states in the cost of workers’ compensation insurance.

Florida had the most expensive rates in the country before the Legislature enacted reforms in 2003, Feeney said, and by 2010 had the 40th lowest rates.

“This first rate increase since the workers’ compensation law in Florida was ruled unconstitutional is just the first shoe to drop,” Feeney said.

“It is imperative that we collectively work together to ensure we don’t regress back to prior to the 2003 workers’ compensation reforms, which have done nothing but allow for a healthy and vibrant workers’ compensation system in Florida since their inception.”

ACLU asks court to continue to block abortion waiting period

A lawyer representing an abortion clinic told the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday that the state’s 24-hour waiting period would significantly restrict a woman’s right to abortion and asked justices to continue blocking the law until a lower court can decide whether it’s constitutional.

The delays could lead to victims of domestic abuse being forced to forgo an abortion, or cause additional emotional distress for women who have a doomed pregnancy, said Julia Kaye, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing a Gainesville clinic. She said it could also mean the difference between using drugs to end a pregnancy rather than surgery.

“Women think long and hard about this decision and take it very seriously,” said Kaye. She added that if woman aren’t ready for an abortion, they can already wait before deciding whether to go through the procedure. “This law actually only impacts the women who are already ready, the women who do not want or need to delay their procedure any longer.”

The state attorney general’s office argued that the law doesn’t create significant burdens for women and the waiting period is necessary because the decision can’t be undone.

“The waiting is not because it’s a medical procedure; it’s a waiting period because it’s an irreversible, life-altering decision on the order of things like marriage, divorce, giving up your child for adoption,” said Denise Harle. “There is a societal interest in people entering into those decisions with due deliberation.”

Gov. Rick Scott signed the waiting period into law last year and it was quickly blocked by a lower court after the ACLU sued. But an appeals court lifted the injunction in February and the law was in effect until the Supreme Court temporarily blocked it two months later. The court is now deciding whether the injunction should stay in place while the lower court hears the initial lawsuit.

Justice Barbara Pariente pointed out that the state doesn’t require a waiting period for hysterectomies, vasectomies and other medical procedures.

“There’s not a waiting period after you decide that you’re going to lose your breast through a mastectomy – that you’ve got to wait another 24 hours before you go through that procedure, not that you haven’t thought about it up until that time,” said Pariente, who is a breast cancer survivor. “It’s not neutral and that’s my concern.”

After the hearing, Kaye said the law did create problems for women in the two months it was enacted.

“We got to see some examples of how harmful it is,” Kaye said. “Women suffered. Women missed work and wages they would not have otherwise had to lose, women experienced sickness that could have been avoided and women experienced and received a very clear message from the state: They are not capable decision makers.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Who wants to be a state Supreme Court justice? No one — yet

The panel charged with helping to find the next Florida Supreme Court justice meets in two weeks to decide which applicants to interview.

One hitch: There aren’t any yet.

That’s probably because the applications are very involved, said Jason Unger, the Tallahassee attorney who chairs the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

And just like guests at a party, nobody wants to be the first to arrive, he added. Unger expects applications to start rolling in this week before the Nov. 11 deadline.

The panel will screen the applications and recommend six people for consideration to Gov. Rick Scott, who makes the pick.

The opening was created by the retirement of Justice James E.C. Perry. The 72-year-old announced his retirement on Sept. 12.

He stayed past the mandatory retirement age of 70 because of a provision allowing justices whose “70th birthday occurs in the second half of their six-year term (to) remain on the bench until the full term expires.”

It will be Scott’s first appointment to the state’s high court and an opportunity to add to its conservative minority of Charles Canady and Ricky Polston.

The progressive wing includes Perry, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, and Justices R. Fred LewisBarbara J. Pariente, and Peggy A. Quince.

Quince is the only other African-American justice on the seven-member court besides Perry.

The commission is scheduled to interview finalists on Nov. 28 and submit a list of possible replacements by Dec. 13.



Cost of Voting Restoration Amendment? Experts unsure

A panel of state economists haven’t been able to figure out how much the Voting Restoration Amendment would cost the state.

The proposed change to the state constitution would automatically return voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.

The Financial Impact Estimating Conference is tasked with estimating costs of constitutional amendments. This one gave them a struggle.

“It is probable that the amendment will result in increased costs to state and local governments due to the higher volume of felons registering to vote (but) the specific dollar amount cannot be determined,” the conference’s final report said.

They did say “increased costs will be higher in the earlier years of implementation due to the amendment’s retroactive application.”

A ballot summary says: “This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.

“The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case-by-case basis.”

State elections officials certified in September that supporters had collected enough signatures for review by the Florida Supreme Court, with the eventual hope of getting the initiative on the 2018 ballot.

The court reviews proposed amendments to the state constitution to ensure they cover only one subject and that their ballot title and summary aren’t misleading.

medical malpractice

Another appellate court finds med mal caps unconstitutional

A second appeals court now has declared unconstitutional the state law limiting the amount of money awarded for pain and suffering when medical malpractice results in injury.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland this week joined the 4th District’s opinion regarding caps on what are known as “noneconomic damages.” The Florida Supreme Court still is reviewing that opinion, however.

In 2014, the high court struck down pain-and-suffering damage limits in medical malpractice cases where the patient died.

A year later, it ruled that the 2003 law capping medical malpractice awards at $500,000 could not be applied retroactively in cases where the patient was injured, but survived.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, called a special legislative session in 2003 to overhaul the law governing medical malpractice lawsuits. Doctors said big-money jury awards were driving up their insurance premiums; some even stopped practicing in Florida.

The state limited noneconomic damages from death or injury to $500,000 per plaintiff, and no more than $1 million from all defendants in a single lawsuit.

The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision said the “legal analyses for personal injury damages and wrongful death damages are not the same.”

But on Wednesday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 2nd District agreed with a 4th District finding that “caps are unconstitutional not only in wrongful death actions … but also in personal injury suits (because) they violate equal protection.”

The underlying case involved a woman whose suit says her prematurely born daughter wasn’t treated properly at Peace River Regional Medical Center in Port Charlotte in 2010, resulting in the child being “fully dependent on others for the rest of her life and need(ing) 24-hour care.”

She was originally awarded “total damages in the amount of $9,637,134, including $4,000,000 in noneconomic damages,” later reduced to $6.7 million.

The case now under review by the Supreme Court was the 4th District’s decision to reinstate a $4.7 million damage award.

There, Susan Kalitan sued North Broward Hospital District and others over complications from carpal tunnel syndrome surgery. She said her esophagus was punctured during the administering of anesthesia.

David Altmaier promises active role in workers’ compensation debate

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation has no plans to draft its own legislative fix for rising workers’ compensation rates, but that doesn’t mean regulators are ignoring the problem, Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier said Wednesday.

“We expect to be actively involved in that conversation,” Altmaier told reporters as his office’s biannual industry conference wound down.

“We are going to have opinions on how potential legislation protects injured workers and how they access the workers’ comp market and things of that nature,” he said. “Just because we don’t have a specific bill that we’ll be running doesn’t mean we won’t necessarily be playing a leading role in that conversation.”

Altmaier’s office is working on specific legislation targeting abuse of assignment of benefits agreements, blamed for driving up property insurance premiums. Read more about that here.

That problem has been percolating for years, Altmaier said. Workers’ compensation emerged suddenly this spring, when the Florida Supreme Court struck down limits on attorney fees in lawsuits against insurance companies and on temporary total disability benefits.

The result in September was approval by Altmaier’s office of a 14.5 percent boost in workers’ compensation insurance premiums, rolling out over 12 months beginning Dec. 1.

The court rulings have ignited a backlash from state leaders and within the business community, with industry groups looking for a way around them.

“We view our role as being a resource to these individuals — reviewing their ideas and being at the table, certainly,” Altmaier said.

As for assignment of benefits — or AOB — abuse, he sees his role as focusing the discussion, which in the past has produced competing legislation but no solution.

“My goal for AOB would be to run a bill that we could build consensus around and perhaps get to the legislative session and offer something people can support.”

Altmaier’s optimistic the office will succeed.

“The challenge will be making sure we go in surgically, and that we don’t dismantle the entire mechanism. We have to be very careful about that,” he said.

“There are certainly situations in which it is appropriate for a consumer to assign their benefits. I do think there are loopholes in the current mechanism that allow a small number of people to abuse the system, to the detriment of the entire marketplace and of consumers that are ultimately going to have to pay the bill for those rate increases.”

Slot machine decision could come in time for session

It’s been nearly five months since the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments over whether to expand slot machines in the state.

Though the justices never set a timeline on when to expect a decision, the smart money says: Expect something by early next year.

That’s because that’s when the Legislature will start drawing up the state budget, which could use the extra money that gambling bring to state coffers. And lawmakers earlier this year heard that general revenue estimates are heading downward in coming years.

Meantime, related matters hang in the balance, including a federal case over whether the Seminole Tribe of Florida can continue to offer blackjack and a proposed state constitutional amendment on gambling.

On June 7, attorney Marc Dunbar argued the slots case for Gretna Racing, the Gadsden County track seeking to add the machines.

Dunbar said the track should be allowed to offer slot machines because voters approved them in a local referendum in 2012.

If the court rules favorably, it could expand slot machines to all six counties where voters passed slots referendums: Brevard, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, and Washington. That could result in the single biggest gambling expansion in the state.

Opponents, such as No Casinos and former Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham, have said slots are illegal “lotteries” banned by the state constitution unless expressly permitted by law.

Dunbar had argued lawmakers intended to allow for an expansion of slot machines in the state, saying counties were empowered under the constitution and state law to decide for themselves whether to allow slots.

Voters statewide approved a change to the constitution legalizing slots at existing jai-alai frontons and horse and dog racetracks only in Broward and Miami-Dade counties and only if voters OK’d it in referendums there.

Lawmakers “would not have allowed slots but for that constitutional amendment,” Dan Gelber, an attorney and former House Democratic leader who now represents the No Casinos gambling-expansion opposition group, told the court.

“The idea that in implementing that amendment that they would, under the table, give 65 other counties that same right is sort of absurd,” he added. “If that had happened, I know a couple of my colleagues’ heads would have exploded.”

At least two other counties, Duval and St. Lucie, are moving on their own referendums, with local gambling interests hoping to get ahead if the court rules for local control of slots.

The state and tribe were in court after lawmakers this year failed to approve a renegotiated agreement that would have meant continued exclusivity — or freedom from competition — to offer blackjack in return for a $3 billion payout to state coffers over seven years.

A non-jury trial was held earlier this month over whether state gambling regulators broke a previous exclusivity deal; U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle has yet to rule.

A separate constitutional amendment is slated for the 2018 statewide ballot, clarifying that only voters can approve expansions of gambling. That amendment will be argued next Wednesday, with Dunbar representing the initiative’s opponents.

Proposed amendments to the Constitution must be OK’d by the Supreme Court to ensure they cover only one subject and that their ballot title and summary aren’t misleading.

The amendment would “ensure that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling,” the ballot summary says. Such initiatives need 60 percent approval to be added to the constitution.

Pam Bondi wants court to clarify death penalty ruling

Attorney General Pam Bondi, warning that murder trials across the state could be placed in limbo, has asked the Florida Supreme Court to clarify a sweeping death penalty ruling it handed down last week.

In two linked cases, the court first concluded that death sentences must require a unanimous jury and then struck down a newly enacted law that allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 of 12 jurors recommended it.

In the rulings, the court made clear that it was not declaring the death penalty unconstitutional. But in the decision that struck down the new law, the court also stated that “the law could not be applied to pending prosecutions.”

One of Bondi’s senior attorneys, Carol Dittmar, filed a motion Thursday on behalf of the attorney general asking that the court revisit its decision, saying that the way the ruling was written “unnecessarily invites continued litigation.”

“The language leaves open the possibility that defense attorneys will assert that no valid death penalty law exists in Florida,” Dittmar wrote in the court filing, adding later that the court needed to clarify its ruling to “avoid any potential miscarriage of justice.”

The motion by Bondi asserts that death penalty cases could proceed in Florida as long as juries were told they must reach a unanimous decision on whether to recommend capital punishment.

But Marty McClain, a long-standing death penalty attorney who filed a legal brief in one of the cases, said last week that it would be a risky move for prosecutors to proceed until the Florida Legislature rewrites the state’s death sentencing law.

“I think at the moment that there’s no statute in place for governing how to proceed,” McClain said.

That means, however, it could be months before the issue is resolved. State legislators are scheduled to return to the Capitol next month for a one-day organizational session, but the next regular session isn’t until March.

Florida’s death penalty law was upended as a result of a case involving Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted using a box-cutter to kill a co-worker at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant in 1998. A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved the death penalty, but a judge imposed the sentence. The state Supreme Court initially upheld his sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court this past January declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision.

That ruling led the state to halt two pending executions, and state legislators rushed to overhaul the law. They gave more sway to juries, including prohibiting a judge from imposing the death penalty if the jury recommended life in prison.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, however, rejected calls to require a unanimous decision from a jury, settling instead for a supermajority of 10 jurors. Prosecutors were strongly opposed to requiring a unanimous jury decision, pointing out that some of the state’s most notorious criminals including serial killer Ted Bundy did not receive a unanimous jury recommendation. An analysis prepared for the Legislature showed that only 21 percent of death penalty sentences handed down over the past 15 years were recommended unanimously.

The Florida Supreme Court, however, last week vacated Hurst’s death sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing. In that decision, justices ruled that a unanimous jury decision was needed to keep the death penalty “constitutionally sound.” The court struck down the state’s new sentencing law in a case brought by Larry Darnell Perry, a St. Cloud man accused of killing his 3-month-old son in 2013.

Florida Supreme Court

Supreme Court: Policyholders’ rights restricted after insurer goes broke

State law limits a homeowner’s rights under a sinkhole policy once the insurer becomes insolvent and the claim goes to the Florida Insurance Guaranty Association, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

It doesn’t matter if the policy was issued before a statute constraining the association’s obligation took effect, Justice Charles Canady wrote for a unanimous court.

“When obtaining an insurance policy, the policyholder obtains no vested right to a future government bailout if the insurer becomes insolvent,” Canady wrote.

The Legislature created the association, often referred to as FIGA, to pay at least a portion of any claim against an insolvent insurance company, the court said.

Every company that sells insurance in Florida must share in these costs. The result, the court said, is “a limited statutory safety net for the insured.”

“The Florida Legislature — not the insurance policy — determines what coverage, if any, FIGA provides to those who experience a covered loss within the meaning of the statute in effect when their insurer is declared insolvent,” the court said.

That statute, it added, does not allow FIGA to pay a lump sum “which the insured might or might not use for its intended purpose — repair of the damage.” Rather, it may pay only the costs of actual repairs, not including appraisal costs.

The case, de la Fuente v. Florida Insurance Guaranty Association, involved Tampa homeowners who bought a policy that included sinkhole coverage from HomeWise Preferred Insurance Co., effective in May 2009. They informed the company on March 1, 2010, that their home had suffered sinkhole damage.

HomeWise was declared insolvent on Sept. 2, 2011, while the parties were still arguing over the claim, and FIGA assumed responsibility for the coverage.

The homeowners argued the more permissive state law in effect when the policy was issued controlled the case. FIGA’s position — that a more restrictive 2011 statute should apply — would be an invalid retroactive application of the law, the homeowners contended.

A Leon County trial judge agreed and awarded $130,000 to the homeowners.

The case landed before Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, which ruled against the homeowners but asked the Supreme Court to rule on the underlying questions “of great public importance.”

The high court concluded the trial judge improperly applied contracts law instead of following the statute’s intent.

“FIGA was not and is not a party to petitioners’ insurance contract. FIGA, as we stated above, is ‘strictly a creature of statute,’ ” the court said.

“As a result, the Florida Legislature — not the insurance policy — determines what coverage, if any, FIGA provides to those who experience a covered loss within the meaning of the statute in effect when their insurer is declared insolvent.”

Although the Legislature said the courts should read the statute in question liberally, “this does not mean that the court may ignore the plain meaning of the statutes defining FIGA’s statutory obligations,” the court said.


Court orders oral arguments in smoking death case

The state’s highest court has set oral arguments in an appeal of a punitive damages award against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

The Florida Supreme Court, which accepted jurisdiction this May, will hear the case March 8, court filings show.

At trial, a jury found smoker James E. Schoeff 25 percent at fault in his death. He had “died from lung cancer caused by his addiction to cigarettes,” according to court documents. 

The suit is one of many Engle progeny cases in which the court, after a monumental 1994 class action, allowed individual smokers with claims against tobacco companies to each sue for their own damages.

Jurors awarded his wife, Joan Schoeff, $10.5 million in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages, even after her lawyer asked jurors not to go above $25 million. 

The trial judge later reduced the compensatory damages award to almost $7.9 million but let stand the punitive damages amount. R.J. Reynolds appealed, calling the punitive damages “unconstitutionally excessive.”

The 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach agreed with RJR that the award “falls on the excessive side of the spectrum,” according to its opinion. One judge in the three-judge panel dissented.

Schoeff then appealed to the Supreme Court, noting the decision conflicted with other appellate courts in Florida. 

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