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Florida Governor Rick Scott Signs Order Expanding Workers’ Compensation Benefits to First Responders

By: Denise Dawson, Esq.

Firefighters, police officers and other first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will qualify for a full array of workers’ compensation insurance benefits effective Oct. 1, 2018, under a bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law, at the Tampa Firefighters Museum on March 27, 2018.

Three Central Florida first responders who were at the Pulse shooting in June 2016 were instrumental in getting the legislation approved. The legislation will cover people who make a claim after October 1, 2018, as long as the triggering event was within the prior year. That means that the Parkland school shooting first responders could be covered, but the responders at the Pulse nightclub would not.

The measure was also a top priority for Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who serves as the state’s fire marshal. Rep. Matt Willhite (D) sponsored the bill. His full time job is serving as a captain with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue.

Workers’ compensation laws require employers to pay medical and wage replacement (i.e., indemnity payments) benefits if an employee suffers an accidental injury or death arising out of work performed in the course and the scope of their employment. Current law establishes the conditions under which a mental or nervous injury is compensated. Generally, mental or nervous injuries without an accompanying physical injury requiring medical treatment are not compensable.

Florida law provides that medical benefits for first responders who experience a mental or nervous injury without an accompanying physical injury are compensable. While medical treatment is covered, first responders without an accompanying physical injury may not receive wage replacement benefits for mental or nervous injuries.

The new bill provides workers’ compensation wage replacement benefits in specified circumstances for PTSD suffered by a law enforcement officer, a firefighter, an emergency medical technician, or a paramedic regardless of whether their PTSD is accompanied by a physical injury requiring medical treatment. First responder PTSD-related wage replacement benefits, in addition to currently available medical benefits, are due under certain circumstances.

The first responder must be diagnosed by a psychiatrist with PTSD following certain specified death related events that were experienced while acting in the course and scope of their employment. These death related events include working a call involving the death of a child, a homicide, or the death, including suicide, of a person who suffered grievous bodily harm. The circumstances include seeing the decedent, seeing or hearing the injury or death, and participating in the treatment or transport of those who die in these events. Under the new law, first responders are required to show by clear and convincing evidence that the events were the source of the PTSD.

Eligible PTSD claims are not subject to benefit limitations generally applicable to mental and nervous injuries, apportionment, any limitation on temporary benefits under s. 440.093, or contribution. Such PTSD claims must be filed within 30 days of the death-related event or manifestation of the PTSD, but no later than one year after the event. Each qualifying death-related event that the first responder experiences will carry its own timely reporting deadline.

The bill also requires an employing agency of a first responder, including volunteer first responders, to provide educational training related to mental health awareness, prevention, mitigation, and treatment.

According to a 2015 article published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, 6.6 percent of 4,000 first responders surveyed had attempted suicide, which is more than 10 times the rate in the general population.

The bill is predicted to have a significant negative fiscal impact on state and local governments.