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    Workers' comp amendment levels legal fees

    If insurers spend more on defense than workers are allowed, the amendment would eliminate the cap for plaintiffs.

    By Associated Press,
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 26, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - The House adopted a surprise amendment to the workers' compensation reform bill Friday, stalling the legislation that is aimed at reducing insurance costs for employers.

    The amendment by Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, would eliminate caps on workers' attorney fees if insurance companies spent more on their defense lawyers than was allowed for the employees' lawyers.

    "It will level the playing field," Seiler said.

    When the amendment passed, the House abruptly stopped work on the bill (HB 1837) and adjourned until Monday.

    Gov. Jeb Bush has made workers' compensation reform a top priority, citing high premiums that are hurting businesses.

    Before Seiler's amendment passed, the Republican majority defeated a series of Democratic amendments that were aimed at increasing employee benefits.

    But when Seiler presented his amendment, Rep. Kim Berfield, the Clearwater Republican who heads the House Insurance Committee, rose to support it, saying it would create equity.

    With Berfield holding thumbs up when the voice vote on the amendment was called, it passed with a roar.

    Berfield's committee wrote the first version of the bill, but House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, then assigned it to the State Administration Committee, where it was rewritten and made more favorable to the insurance industry.

    Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, said later that the amendment would be readdressed Monday.

    "I'm sure it will work out," Ross said.

    The Senate version of the reforms (SB 1132), which does not restrict workers' attorney fees as much as the House bill, is awaiting action in the Senate.

    The House bill would eliminate hourly attorney fees and reduce contingency fees, make it more difficult for construction companies to exempt employees from workers' compensation insurance coverage and set tougher standards for proving permanent total disability.

    There is also a provision to penalize insurance companies that do not pay benefits on time.

    Rep. Don Brown, R-De Funiak Springs, said the reforms would make the insurance affordable for employers and more insurance companies would be willing to sell it.

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