A recent case from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, Ocean Reef Club, Inc. v. Wilczewski, highlights the importance of employers reporting workplace injuries and illnesses to their workers’ compensation carrier. Although the Third District Court of Appeal has jurisdiction over only Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, employers throughout the State should take notice.
The plaintiffs in the case worked as a hair stylist and nail technician in a beauty salon owned by Ocean Reef. They claimed that chemical fumes present in the salon caused them to experience asthma like symptoms, headaches, and respiratory problems. The employees notified their supervisor of the health problems.
The trial court found that Ocean Reef could not rely on workers’ compensation immunity and the Third DCA agreed. The Third DCA determined that because Ocean Reef had knowledge of the claims and failed to notify the carrier, it could not now claim it is entitled to workers’ compensation tort immunity. The Third DCA interpreted the workers’ compensation statute as requiring the employer to report an injury to its carrier within seven days of knowledge of the injury. Because Ocean Reef failed to report the injuries to its carrier within the seven day period, the court concluded that it could not assert the workers’ compensation tort immunity as a defense to the employees’ civil lawsuit. Further, the court imputed the carrier’s determination that the injuries did not occur in the course and scope of work to Ocean Reef and said that Ocean Reef could not advance the irreconcilable argument that the tort immunity applied because the injuries did occur in the course and scope of work notified the workers’ compensation insurance carrier. Two years after they left Ocean Reef’s employment, they filed lawsuits against Ocean Reef for negligence. At that time, Ocean Reef notified the workers’ compensation insurance carrier. The carrier denied the claims because the injuries were not suffered in the course and scope of employment and because the claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations. In the separate negligence lawsuit, Ocean Reef argued that the tort claims were barred by workers’ compensation immunity, which protects employers from employee tort suits arising from workplace injuries and accidents.
One of the judges on the appeals panel wrote a well reasoned dissent that refuted the notion that Ocean Reef had a duty to notify the workers’ compensation carrier of the injuries. The dissent interpreted the workers’ compensation statute to make the employee legally responsible for initiating the benefits delivery process, not the employer. The dissent also argued that the majority opinion opens the door for every workers’ compensation claim to be converted into a negligence claim by the injured worker’s assertion that the injured worker gave notice of the workplace injury to the employer, but the employer failed to report the alleged injury to the carrier.
The Florida Supreme Court may have the final word. We will continue to follow the issue and keep you advised.