A Florida court’s ruling that the state’s 104-week limit on injured workers’ temporary benefits is unconstitutional could increase costs by $65 million, says the workers’ compensation industry’s rating organization.

The National Council on Compensation Insurance released its analysis of a Florida First District Court of Appeals judge’s ruling in a case [Bradley Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg, No. 1D12-3563, February 2013] that has triggered industry concern.

The case arose from a claim filed by St. Petersburg firefighter and paramedic Bradford Westphal, who exhausted the state limit of 104 weeks of temporary benefits and yet was denied further benefits since his physicians could not determine his long-range medical prospects. As a result, he was left without benefits despite being medically advised not to work and with no assurances about the future of his claim.

Judge Bradford Thomas ruled the statutory coverage scheme that left Westphal without coverage violated his constitutional right to access the court and “receive justice without denial or delay.”

His ruling automatically increased temporary benefits from 104 weeks to its former level of 260 weeks, per a 1994 law.

The First District Court of Appeals has approved a motion to have the entire 15-member court rehear the case, which may ultimately find its way to the Florida Supreme Court. But until then, the industry is left to assess the potential impact of Thomas’ ruling.

NCCI projects that the case could increase the state’s workers’ compensation costs by $65 million or 2.8 percent. That analysis is based only on claims arising after Thomas’ ruling. NCCI noted, however, there could be a “significant unfunded liability” as the ruling is applied to injured workers currently receiving temporary benefits.

There are only about two weeks left to go in Florida’s legislative session and neither lawmakers nor the industry has stepped forward with a possible legislative solution that would negate the Thomas ruling.

Industry representatives have said there is no easy fix because the ruling addresses a constitutional inequity. Even if the industry agreed to increase the number of weeks injured workers could receive temporary benefits, there is a question whether that would satisfy the court.

“The rationale used in the Westphal decision concluding that the temporary total disability duration cap was unconstitutional could be used to find the 260 week temporary maximum unconstitutional as well,” noted NCCI.