By Paul A. Herman, Esq. and Joel A. Brown, Esq.
The Florida Workers’ Compensation Industry is living in its own version of the “Zombie Apocalypse” comparable to the one seen in the movies Zombieland and Zombieland 2. We are referring to “Zombies” in the form of “Zombie Debts”, a term used in the collection world to describe a debt that seems to be resolved but comes back to life to wreak havoc on the debtor. In Workers’ Compensation they are collection notices/bills from medical service providers/original creditors or debt collectors sent to injured employees for medical services related to treatment for injuries from an accident occurring in the course and scope of employment. Even when a carrier has acknowledged and accepts responsibility for paying the bill, the account can remain open and outstanding and can re-emerge either with further collection efforts or even credit reporting on the account.
We have found that even with the most conscientious effort undertaken by a claimant attorney, many of these Zombie Debts will not die and may come back to life to haunt a claimant well after the comp case is washed out. In filing numerous cases under either the state or federal collection statutes, we are like Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee) in the Zombieland movies where we can “light them up“ and provide a double tap to make sure that all collection activity and credit reporting is forever dead (whether the carrier ever actually pays the bill or not).
FS §440.13 specifically states that an employee in the system, i.e. a claimant, is not liable nor responsible for the payment for medical services for work related injuries. Therefore, a collection notice or bill sent to a claimant from a medical provider/creditor or debt collector likely violates either the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act (FCCPA) and/or the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA). The statutes preclude a medical provider as an original creditor (FCCPA) or any debt collector (FDCPA and possibly FCCPA) on their behalf from attempting to collect any debt in which there is no legal entitlement (i.e: from a WC claimant). Violations of these laws provide for a statutory penalty, actual or punitive damages if warranted, and payment of attorney’s fees and costs by the offending party.
Moreover, these collection practices have an enormous impact on the WC industry. Nearly 30% of first Petitions for Benefits (PFBs) and 11.5% of all PFBs filed in Florida from January 1, 2015 through March 31, 2021 addressed at least one collection notice or bill sent by a medical provider to an injured employee. Most of these collection notices were sent in violation of Section 440.13 and thus violated the FCCPA and/or the FDCPA. This billing practice by the medical community is both costly and time consuming in the comp case, not to mention the financial damage it can cause to an individual claimant.
The benefits to a claimant attorney and their clients are not only some additional money in pocket but even more importantly, assurance of the discontinuation of any collection activity or negative credit reporting. The Judge of Compensation Claims only has jurisdiction to determine if the carrier is responsible for the bill and has no involvement in the proper submission or payment. Therefore, if not properly submitted and the carrier does not pay it, the creditor can continue to try and collect against your client almost indefinitely. We have clients who have settled a Workers’ Comp case and yet years later, the account from the debt collector mysteriously appears on their credit report. This was because it either wasn’t properly resolved or it was paid at a reduced amount in accordance with the Florida Workers’ Comp fee schedule. The end result is an outstanding balance still remains and you have an unhappy client! Let us help you avoid that scenario. We have been extremely successful in handling these cases and have gotten the greatest return by raising the bar on all forms of penalties and damages and fees in our cases and look forward to answering any of your questions or concerns and working with you in the future on your cases involving these medical bills/collection notices.