As the Florida Supreme Court wrestles again with the state’s dysfunctional workers compensation law, the Florida Courier follows the fight of Patdrica Bailey, whose husband was allegedly killed by his employer’s negligence.
BY THE FLORIDA COURIER STAFF
FORT LAUDERDALE – Patdrica Bailey isn’t an attorney. She’s a secretary at a Broward County public middle school.
But the ineffectiveness of Florida’s so-called “workers compensation” laws forced her to stand alone, hurt and disappointed, before a Broward circuit court judge in an attempt to seek compensation and justice for the death of her 38-year-old husband on a construction site.
The state’s decades-old workers compensation system is set up as a tradeoff. Injured workers cannot pursue civil lawsuits, but in exchange they are supposed to receive medical care and other benefits aimed at providing compensation and getting them back on the job.
However, one injured worker has filed a case that was heard Wednesday by the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the system has become unconstitutional because workers are giving up legal rights – but are not receiving adequate benefits in return.
The benefits were unquestionably inadequate in the case of the death of Clayton Bailey.
Deaths treated differently
Bailey was killed instantly more than two years ago after being allegedly crushed by an 18,000-pound pipe valve assembly as he worked on a project in Miami-Dade County. He had been employed a pipelayer for almost nine years by Ric-Man Construction Florida, Inc., of Deerfield Beach.
Workers compensation benefits are capped in Florida at a low $150,000 when a worker is killed on the job. The money is then split among the surviving spouse, if any, and all minor children.
The Baileys had been married for more than eight years. The couple has five children – two each from previous relationships and a daughter, Trinity, that they had together. Trinity was 6 when her father was killed.
Under Florida law, the $150,000 was split among Patdrica, Trinity, and a son Clayton Bailey had in Jamaica before he emigrated to America and became a U.S. citizen.
The total amount paid to the entire Bailey family is about 18 months of Clayton Bailey’s regular salary. His widow Patdrica doesn’t know what she’ll do when regular payments run out in less than two years – when Trinity turns 11.
“I’m hoping for a promotion on my job. I’m trusting that God will provide,” she explained.
Patdrica retained the legal services of Eugene K. Pettis of the personal injury firm Haliczer Pettis and Schwamm of Fort Lauderdale.
The firm got worker’s compensation payments flowing; tracked investigations by the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Homicide Division, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Department; and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Ric-Man. Patdrica and Trinity began to get regular grief counseling.
Pretrial investigation revealed that Ric-Man, Clayton Bailey’s employer, was the only contractor on the job. It was responsible for paying only $150,000 when Clayton Bailey was killed.
Under Florida law, in exchange for taking the benefits, Patdrica Bailey could only file a wrongful death action against Ric-Man under extremely limited circumstances – even if the benefits received are not enough to support the surviving family.
And over the years, the Florida Legislature has made the legal standard of proof so high that it’s akin to proving Clayton Bailey was killed as a consequence of first-degree murder on the jobsite.
Pettis’s firm didn’t believe they could meet that standard. The firm withdrew from the Bailey case.
Patdrica tried to get other personal injury lawyers, including some of the best in South Florida, to take over.
“When they saw it was a workers comp case, they all said no,” she explained.
She was forced to stand alone before the trial judge arguing why the case should not be dismissed – at the same time Ric-Man’s attorney tried to blame her husband for his own death.
The case was dismissed. She plans to appeal.
The attorneys’ refusals and the dismissal is what current Florida law was designed to do.
Key court case
Patdrica Bailey is now watching the Florida Supreme Court. She’s praying that the justices throw out the current law.
On Wednesday, justices tried to sift through arguments about the constitutionality of the workers compensation system – and whether they should decide the issue at all.
Mark Zientz, an attorney for former Hialeah Hospital nurse Daniel Stahl, argued that the state has unfairly stripped benefits from injured workers, with much of the focus on a 2003 overhaul of the workers-compensation system that was designed to reduce employers’ insurance rates.
“These benefits get cut over and over and over,” Zientz told the court.
Up to legislators
But Ken Bell, who represented the hospital and Sedgwick Claims Management Services, argued that Zientz is making a “kitchen sink” argument to challenge the constitutionality of the system.
Bell said the Supreme Court shouldn’t make such a decision.
“He is asking this court to make a policy decision to declare that entire law ineffectual or ineffective,’’ Bell said. “The court simply doesn’t have the power. The issues need to be addressed.
The first place to address it is in the Legislature.”
Concerned about benefits
Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry made statements that indicated they shared concerns about workers’ benefits being diminished.
“It’s hard to deny that what’s happened over the last 50 years has not been a diminution in workers-compensation benefits,” Pariente said at one point.
‘Hurt by the system’
Zientz said the Supreme Court can resolve the constitutional issues.
“This is an important issue. This is something that involves tens of thousands of people who are hurt every day – not hurt on the job, but hurt by the system,’’ Zientz said. “And this is the court that has to make that decision as to whether or not they continue to get hurt or whether or not we can stop that.”
Patdrica Bailey agrees. She wants the existing workers comp scheme completely thrown out.
“The law works only for companies, especially when a death involved,” she said.
“They are saying my husband’s life is worth little or nothing.
“My daughter asks me, ‘When are we going to court?’ She sees criminal trials on TV when somebody gets killed. She’s looking for somebody to be held accountable. How do you tell a child that’s not going to happen?”