In March 2018, a new Florida workers’ comp bill (S.B. 376) was signed into law by Florida Governor Rick Scott after passing unanimously through the state Senate and House of Representatives. The bill is intended to help first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) collect medical benefits and paid leave under workers’ compensation. Prior to this bill going into effect, first responders diagnosed with PTSD were only eligible for medical benefits.
Not all diagnosis of PTSD are compensable, however. The law lists eleven “conditions” that deem a first responsible eligible for workers comp benefits, which include treating a severely injured person, seeing a deceased child and witnessing a murder.
Currently, about a third of states in the US have similar workers’ compensation laws. Jimmy Patronis, Florida Fire Marshal and Chief Financial Officer, believes PTSD is a “hidden killer,” saying the horrific images witnessed by first responders can often lead to thoughts of suicide.
Getting the Law Changed Was an Uphill Battle
Getting this law changed hasn’t been easy. Following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando two years ago, which left 49 people dead, workers’ compensation legislation was introduced as a means of helping first responders who witnessed the traumatic event. At least three first responders to the incident have publicly stated they now suffer from PTSD.
Unfortunately, the bill languished in the Florida legislature for over a year. The Florida League of Cities was concerned about the costs to local governments who currently pay fire and police personnel. After the Parkland school shooting earlier this year, opposition to the bill seemed to fade away.
Bill Passes Unanimously, But Too Late for Some
Prior to the final floor vote, Representative Matt Willhite looked up to the gallery and apologized to Linda Benoway, whose son, Steve LaDue, committed suicide last September. LaDue had been a Tampa firefighter for thirty years when he attempted to collect workers’ compensation for his PTSD. His claim was denied, and LaDue was forced to return to work to “pay back” the time he missed.
Following Willhite’s statement to Linda Benoway, the bill passed unanimously, although it came too late for others besides LaDue. In July 2016, Josh Vandegrift, a firefighter and paramedic in the city of Cocoa, received a call about a pedestrian who had been struck by a car about 100 yards from the station. Vandegrift and others responded. As Vandegrift cleared bystanders from the scene of the accident, he looked down at the victim and saw his younger brother’s face. Nate Vandegrift had been hit by a commercial van as he crossed the roadway. While Josh began treating his brother, he was removed from the scene by police officers. Josh has suffered flashbacks and nightmares since since his brother’s death.
Vandegrift was diagnosed with PTSD after his brother’s accident and subsequent death. He took his vacation and sick time as he attempted to deal with the trauma, and co-workers even donated their leave time to him. When all the leave ran out, Josh applied for workers’ compensation, only to have his claim denied. Vandegrift said his only choices were to resign or return to work. He returned to work, although he says “…every day, I walk through a different part of hell and have to figure out how to navigate it.”
Unfortunately, Vandegrift and dozens of other first responders like him who have been diagnosed with PTSD will not benefit from the new law, since only those who make a claim after October 1, 2018 and who had a triggering event within the prior year will be covered. This means that while the Parkland first responders could be covered, those who responded to the Pulse nightclub shootings will not.
Help as a First Responder Suffering from PTSD
If you or a loved one is suffering from PTSD after witnessing a traumatic event as a first responder, it’s important that you to speak with an experienced Florida workers’ compensation attorney who will work hard to ensure you receive the benefits you are entitled to. At Scott J. Sternberg & Associates, our workers’ compensation attorneys are conveniently located in West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, and Orlando. Contact us today at 561-687-5660 for a free consultation and review of your case, or fill out our confidential contact form and someone will call you back.