Florida’s chief financial officer has stepped in amid a firefighters’ compensation appeal for mental stress, a decision the firefighter’s attorney called “unprecedented” and reflects the importance of the case.
If Florida is 1st The District Appeals Court upholds a compensation claims judge’s decision in the case that could block post-traumatic stress disorder treatment and furloughs for many firefighters, police officers and emergency workers, said chief financial officer Jimmy Patronis and plaintiffs’ attorney Geoff Bichler.
“It could create a horrific and crippling effect on PTSD claims,” said Bichler, attorney for the plaintiff in the case, retired Brevard County firefighter Roger Williams.
“This case is particularly important because the 1st DCA has an opportunity to set a legal precedent in support of our brave firefighters across the state,” Patronis, who also serves as the state fire marshal, said in a statement this week after his office filed a an amicus curiae brief in Williams’ appeal. “PTSD is a serious challenge for many of our first responders because they see and deal with things that are unthinkable in the line of duty.”
The point of contention in the Williams case appears to stem from the fact that Florida has two laws that address the benefits of mental stress for responders: one has been in place since 2007 and only authorizes medical benefits for PTSD that is not accompanied by physical injury. .
A 2018 law that Patronis lobbied for passed after the mass shootings of Pulse nightclub and Parkland High School. It provides medical benefits and compensation for mental stress, even without the accompanying physical injury. But it also requires applicants to meet strict criteria and present compelling evidence of mental trauma.
Bichler and Patronis’ financial services department says compensation judge Michael Ring applied the wrong law, potentially setting a damaging precedent for first responders who need professional help.
A second very similar case, Jerome Patterson v. City of Jacksonville, is also pending before the 1st DAC. If the appeals court agrees that firefighters in these cases are not owed benefits, state firefighters can ask the Legislature to clarify the law, Bichler said.
About 11 PTSD claims filed under the 2018 statue have gone to trial, only three of which awarded benefits, according to a search of orders from Florida’s Office of Compensation Claims Judges.
This issue in the Williams case has not been tested at the appellate court level thus far.
The circumstances of the Williams case, as described in the court filing, reflect the searing events first responders often witness and the emotional toll such footage can take. The case file also shows how emotional issues outside of the workplace can contribute to the mental health of rescue workers, perhaps to the detriment of their compensation claims.
Roger Williams had been a firefighter with Brevard County Fire Rescue since 1999. He had worked on many horrific incidents, including a 19-year-old who committed suicide with a shotgun; a 3-year-old child killed by a car; a child with an amputated arm; and two people murdered with a hammer.
But two incidents, in particular, led to the 2021 claim, the competition judge explained. Williams responded to a truck fire in 2019. He could hear the driver screaming but couldn’t reach the man because of flames and an exploding gas tank. About 18 months later, Williams said he cracked up while working at the fire station and saw video on the station’s television monitor showing rescue scenes in the event of an accident. fire. The station also had photographs of fire scenes on the wall.
The firefighter said he began to feel short of breath and then collapsed crying. He also testified that he felt anxiety before his wedding day due to the size of the crowd, and in 2021 cried for hours after having a drink at a bar, the judge said.
Williams’ original claim for benefits sought compensation as well as medical benefits, but, crucially, the claim for compensation was later dropped. The county and its insurance claims administrator, Preferred Governmental Claims Solutions, denied the claim, arguing the stress was unrelated to Williams’ job.
Both parties brought in psychiatrists who examined Williams, his treatment history and his family history. Williams’ doctor said the truck fire and viewing videos of the scene of the fire at the fire station contributed to the man’s trauma. But, the doctor acknowledged, the videos and photos, which immediately preceded the compensation claim, did not appear to meet the rigorous criteria required by Florida’s 2018 law. The competition judge agreed.
These criteria, criticized by some mental health professionals as arbitrary and confusing, include “directly witnessing a death…which resulted in grievous bodily harm of a nature that shocks the conscience”.
The PTSD Act 2018 also requires a mental injury to be demonstrated by “clear and convincing evidence”. Another psychiatrist testified that Williams did not meet established medical criteria for PTSD.
Ultimately, Judge Ring ruled that the 2018 law applied. “I find that the plaintiff has failed to produce clear and convincing evidence that he suffered a mental or nervous injury as a manifestation of a compensable accident as required” by law. Ring denied the request and request for attorney fees for Williams’ lawyers.
Patronis’ amicus brief, written by DFS attorneys Cassidy Perdue and Katie Privett, argues the judge got it wrong. In claims in which only medical benefits are sought, 2007 state law section 112.1815(2)(a) applies, not the 2018 section known as 112.1815(5). ) (a), according to the brief.
“The Compensation Claims Judge erroneously concluded that Florida Statute Section 112.1815(5)(a) governs compensation for all PTSD claims for first responders,” DFS attorneys wrote. . “This finding is contrary to the clear and unambiguous language of the law and ignores the legislature’s intent to increase coverage for mental or nerve injuries suffered by first responders.”
The 2007 law does not require the higher burden of proof and “compelling evidence” when a claimant is only seeking medical benefits for a mental injury, the brief notes.
Attorneys for Brevard County and Preferred Government Claims could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the case.
It’s unclear how much the DFS amicus brief will have with the appeals court, or how likely the judges are to favorably consider the firefighters’ claims. A Florida judge not associated with the case said Tuesday that because Patronis is not often involved in cases, and because the amicus brief is clear and well-written, it could have an impact. The Department of Financial Services also houses the State Office of Insurance Regulation and its Workers’ Compensation Division.
In an editorial published a week ago, however, the South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper blasted the 1st DCA for its decision on another first responder’s workers’ compensation claim. In Stephen Sargent v Bradford County, 1st DCA upheld a compensation judge’s decision that the sheriff’s deputy was not entitled to benefits after suffering a heart attack.
The state’s “heart-lung law” creates a presumption that heart attacks for court officers are work-related, in most cases. But the court noted that Sargent did not undergo a physical exam when he was promoted from part-time to full-time, even though he had spent one a year before at the sheriff’s office, and a second exam physical was not required by the employer.
The judges may have followed the letter of the law, but the newspaper called the decision “as cruel as it gets.”
The dissenting opinion of Justice Scott Makar can be viewed here.