Workers compensation laws in Florida are designed to protect both workers and employers. However, in the event of amusement park accidents and workplace accidents, workplace laws can create challenges in workers compensation cases. Currently, the two largest amusement parks in Florida are involved in lawsuits stemming from workplace accidents. Walt Disney World is being sued after a monorail worker was killed in a Florida train accident at the park in 2009. SeaWorld Orlando is being sued after the drowning death of killer-whale trainer in early 2009.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush helped implement changes to workers compensation laws seven years ago, and critics of the changes claim that the new legislation heavily favors large employers such as the two amusement parks. Supporters of the laws argue that the legislation means standardized payments in workplace injury suits, which keeps costs down and protects business from large jury settlements. Supporters note that the laws make it less expensive and more attractive to do business in Florida.
Victims of workplace accidents may not agree. Originally, workers compensation was created to keep claims out of the courts. Florida employers are required to have workers compensation insurance to protect employees – and themselves – in workplace accident situations. When a workplace accident occurs, Florida workers compensation rules are supposed to cover lost wages and medical costs promptly and no matter who is at faulty. The advantage for workers is that they do not need to go through a long and expensive legal process to get needed money. However, workers also lose the ability to sue their employer to recover large sums.
In Florida, when a workplace accident is fatal, wage payments have a $150,000 limit and beneficiaries also receive up to $7,500 for funeral costs. In addition, spouses of victims may be compensated for up to 80 class hours at community colleges and 1,800 hours at some career centers in order to get job training. Some victim’s families find that these costs do not always cover medical expenses as well as other costs associated with a workplace death.
The court system agrees that in some cases, employers can be sued. For example, the Florida Supreme Court deemed in 1993 that employers who engage in activities that are “substantially certain” to cause injury or fatalities may be sued. In 2000, a court defined “substantially certain” as a circumstance in which the business should have know that its behaviors likely could cause a fatality or injury to an employee. Thus, businesses did not actually have to know that the actions can lead to risks. The Florida Supreme Court also decided that businesses that intentionally harm employees are not protected from lawsuits.
In 2003, Gov. Bush changed Florida workers compensation laws, cutting some benefits while improving other benefits, placing limits on the fees attorneys could recover in workers compensation cases, and protecting businesses from workers compensation and Florida wrongful death lawsuits. Instead of the 2000 definition, lawmakers claimed that workers compensation lawsuits could only be pursued in cases where a business “knew’” it was engaging in a behavior that it “knew” was “virtually certain” to cause fatalities or injuries. Workers compensation claimants were also required to prove “clear and convincing evidence” that the employer intentionally hid the danger and that the risk was not obvious.