On December 8, 2009, at the age of 49, Westphal was injured moving furniture during a fire. As the pain seared through his back and down his leg, he knew something wasn’t right.
A city-chosen surgeon determined that he needed major back surgery, a Level 5 spinal fusion. But even more disturbing was the news that he would have to wait a month until surgery.
The surgery performed on January 11 was just the first of a series that left Westphal in a neck-to-waist brace – meant to be used for a maximum of six weeks – for one year. His spine was fused into a “flat back,” and he had chest pain so severe it was hard to breathe at times. He had no feeling in his left leg and fell constantly, and eventually needed major knee surgery.
Under current Florida workers’ compensation laws, Westphal was unable to sue the city or see another doctor, but instead had to apply for workers’ compensation benefits – benefits that were already on a timeline to run out long before he could return to work. The doctor would only approve him for “temporary total disability,” claiming that he was continuing to improve – albeit slowly – from his surgeries.
After four months, a doctor approved Westphal for sedentary work. But when he tried to return to work, he could not sit for more than three hours without extreme pain. When he attempted to take personal time off due to his physical limitations, he was told he was no longer being covered by workers’ compensation because he had decided to leave.
“I just wanted to get back to my job as a fire fighter, a job I loved, a job that meant everything to me. And now, I was paralyzed, being pushed out by injuries that were not supposed to happen,” says Westphal. “It was and still is extremely hard on my wife and me, and my kids.”
Westphal teamed up with attorney Jason Fox – who specializes in representing first responders – from Bichler, Oliver, Long and Fox and also underwent even more surgeries to try to fix the damage that had been done. He’s had, to date, five back surgeries and four knee surgeries.
It’s been seven years since his injury, and Westphal has spent five of those years in court battles. Fox claimed that limiting temporary disability benefits to two years was unconstitutional. It leaves people like Westphaldisabled and without pay for a gap of time.
On Thursday, June 9 – four years after the first trial and three lower-court opinions later – the Florida Supreme Court sided with Westphal and deemed the limit on temporary disability unconstitutional in the state of Florida.
“We are excited for Brad and his family to receive the compensation that he deserves. He was under undo stress from the city, and we are thrilled for his win,” says St. Petersburg, FL Local 747 President Rick Pauley.
Although Westphal is still awaiting settlement from the city, his win will likely impact other workers’ compensation cases in the future.
“No one should have to go through what I have,” explains Westphal. “This has been an extremely hard time for me and my family, and I want to see things change.”
“Brad and I fought this battle for all fire fighters with serious injuries,” says Fox. “If you require multiple surgeries to be able to return to work, you can now take the necessary time to recover and don’t need to be forced back into action prematurely.”