What caused the 40-year-old building to crumble remains unclear. However, a 2018 piece of legislation may provide first responders suffering from PTSD that stems from their involvement in the search and rescue efforts, in the collapse of the Champlain Towers Condominium in Surfside, a shelter in which they could seek medical care and loss wages in the form of indemnity payments through workers’ compensation benefits.
SB 376 was signed into law in 2018 by then Florida Governor Rick Scott after being approved unanimously by Florida lawmakers. The bill related to workers’ compensation benefits for first responders and amended Florida Statute § 112.1815. The law was passed to better address PTSD among the state’s first responders, was made applicable in 2019, and can now be a critical and much needed help for numerous first responders who responded and assisted in the search and rescue following the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside.
The amendment to §112.1815, which took effect in 2019, provides for payment of medical and indemnity benefits to First Responders who suffer disabling PTSD – even without a physical injury. However, to qualify the PTSD diagnosis must have been caused by statutorily specified, and enumerated, events. See, §112.1815. Further, the diagnosis must be made by a psychiatrist and causation must be established by clear and convincing evidence. Id. The Statute also seems to bar claims if it is made over 52-weeks after the incident. See, Palm Beach Cty. Fire Rescue v. Wilkes, 309 So. 3d 687 (Fla. 1st DCA 2020). Furthermore, there are specified qualifying events referenced in the Statute – the occurrence of one of the statutorily enumerated events is required before a Claimant can proceed under the guise of §112.1815. (For purposes of this brief discussion, those events can be summarized as follows; “Seeing for oneself a deceased minor[,] “Seeing for oneself a decedent whose death involved grievous bodily harm of a nature that shocks the conscience[.]”) §112.1815 makes abundantly clear that benefits for a first responder under the statute “Do not require a physical injury,” and are not subject to several limitations set out in Florida Workers Compensation law. See, §112.1815.
The liberalizing of the requirements for First Responders to bring viable PTSD claims in Florida provides an avenue for front line emergency workers, like firefighters and police, who assisted at the scene of the Champlain Towers condominium collapse, and now suffer symptoms of PTSD, to seek much needed medical care without a fear of a loss of income. This is because in addition to medical coverage, which was previously provided for under the old law, the amended statute now allows first responders suffering from debilitating PSTD to obtain lost wages, through indemnity benefits, paid through the workers’ compensation system. This change was significant as the old statute did not include a provision regarding indemnity payments which without a doubt had previously precluded many from seeking medical care, in the past, due to a fear they would suffer a significant loss of income.
The search and rescue mission that has taken place in Surfside, Florida, following the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium, has involved numerous first responders and has tasked them with an extraordinarily burdensome task. Rescue crews have removed more than 14 million pounds of debris from the site, children have been removed from the horrific scene, and bodies continue to be found amid rubble as the death toll pushes higher. No-one has been pulled alive since the first hours of the building collapse in the early hours of June 24th.
It was reported that a firefighter working on the scene carried the body of his own seven-year-old daughter from the rubble – He had kept vigil at the collapse site for days and was there when she was extracted. Other children have also been extracted from the rubble – the bodies of two sisters, ages 11 and 4 were found and also extracted in the rescue efforts. The horrific things seen by these firefighters and first responders who responded to the towers collapse on the 24th of June and the following weeks was the kind of trauma the aforementioned statute contemplated. Firefighters suffering from PTSD following their involvement in the rescue efforts at Champlain Towers would likely be able to seek benefits, or raise claims, under §112.1815.
Generally, if you file a workers’ compensation claim centered on work-related PTSD, you can expect your employer’s Workers Compensation Carrier to dissect your claim very diligently, especially if you have no physical injury. Luckily, for many Florida first responders – workers compensation PTSD claims do not require a physical injury and the law is on their side.