The Florida First District Court rendered Palm Beach County v. Wilkes on December 14, 2020. The case is significant as it provides a glimpse into the 2018 statutory presumption regarding post traumatic stress disorder for first responders. However, in a broader sense, the discussion of distinguishing statutes of limitation and statutes of repose is also intriguing for the legal professional. I find students struggle with the concept of repose. That is understandable, as a fair few lawyers likewise struggle.
The litigation in Wilkes resulted in the trial judge arriving at several findings of fact which controlled the outcome. The parties did not dispute those findings on appeal, arguing instead over the appropriate interpretation of the reasonably recent statutory enactment. The trial judge's interpretation resulted in the award of benefits to the injured worker. The employer appealed, and the Court's interpretation sided instead with the employer/carrier.
The statute in question is section 112.1815(5), Florida Statutes (2018). Florida, generally, is a state in which mental injury or disability is compensable only if it results from a physical injury. Section 440.093, Fla. Stat. States that afford such benefits for mental injury alone are colloquially known as "mental/mental" states. Florida's 2018 amendment of the Public Officers and Employees law impacts that broader provisions of its Workers' Compensation Law in Chapter 440. The amendment in 112.1815 creates workers' compensation coverage outside the workers' compensation law, but only for specific employees, the "first responders." The Court referred to these as "special provisions for accidents and injuries suffered by first responders."
The exception in Chapter 112 is specific: "the PTSD must result from one of the eleven qualifying events listed in" that section. Furthermore: “[a] claim under this subsection must be properly noticed within 52 weeks after the qualifying event.”
In Wilkes, the worker "witnessed the rescue of a young boy who drowned" in 2015. He continued to work, but at some point began to experience "distractedness, anxiety, and depression." Then, in May 2019 (at least 3 years after the drowning), he went diving. After that diving, the worker at some point "had a dream that the drowned boy was his own son." By the "the end of May 2019, he was diagnosed with PTSD that was opined to be caused by the drowning he witnessed in 2015.
The trial judge concluded that the drowning was a "qualifying event" under Chapter 112, and that the worker suffered PTSD as a result. The judge concluded that the manifestation was May 30, 2019 and that the worker was disabled as of that time. The judge concluded that the Claimant's notice thereafter was timely filed, that is "within 52 weeks." The Court disagreed with that final conclusion.
The Court reiterated that this was a matter of statutory interpretation, guided primarily by the "plain language of the statute." It reminds that when such language is "clear and unambiguous," there is no resort to "rules of statutory interpretation." Instead, that plain meaning is applied to the facts: "the statute must be given its plain and obvious meaning.” The Court concluded that the 52 week limitation was such a clear provision.
The statute does not require notice within 52 weeks of a diagnosis of PTSD or the manifestation of symptoms. It requires the notice "within 52 weeks of the qualifying event." The worker contended that this "manifestation" was "itself is a qualifying event." The Court explained that "section 112.1815(5)(a)2. lists only eleven very particular events that constitute qualifying events," and The "manifestation of PTSD symptoms is not among them." Therefore, since the notice was not provided within 52 weeks of the drowning that was witnessed, the notice was not timely under the statute.
This will prove challenging for some. The question posed may be "how does one provide notice before one knows of a problem?" There will be some who perceive "fairness" issues with such a legal requirement. The Court perhaps anticipates such questions presciently, or perhaps the issue was raised by the parties. The Court therefore provides a reminder of the concept of "repose."
The Court explains in detail that a statute of limitations requires action within some period, but "apply [after] a cause of action accrues." Thus, the statute of limitations did not expire in this instance because it did not begin until the May 2019 diagnosis. However, "the same is not true for a statute of repose." A repose statute is not measured from such "accrual" of an action but from some "specified act." Such laws are constitutional, even though they may bar a claim even before it accrues. That is, the claim may be barred before the malady (PTSD) is even diagnosed.
The legislative intention, interpreted by the Court, is that a fixed period exists during which a worker might suffer one of the events described by Chapter 112, be diagnosed, and provide notice of a claim to the employer. That period is one year, 52 weeks. The statute's reference to that "qualifying event" bars such PTSD claims if not noticed within one year. The Court conceded that the "effect may be to eliminate a cause of action before it accrues," but explained that such limitations are not "denial of equal protection, due process, or access to courts." It is possible for a law, in providing an exception or special treatment, to be limited in time (when it occurred) or space (where it occurred).
The compensability of "mental only" claims in Florida workers' compensation is precluded generally. The provisions of Chapter 112 make specific exceptions to that generality for special employees in special, delineated, situations. The Court applied those statutory exceptions to the situation as presented and concluded that the exceptions do not apply in the factual situation presented. Whether the exceptions of Chapter 112 are or are not fair is not the issue with which the Court was presented.