TALLAHASSEE — A Florida appeals court on Wednesday cleared the way for the enforcement of a controversial auto insurance law that backers say was designed to curb fraudulent claims.
The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that Tallahassee Circuit Judge Terry Lewis was wrong when he sided with physical therapists and other health care providers challenging the 2012 law.
In March, Lewis ruled that modifications to some of the key provisions of Florida's no-fault auto insurance law were possibly unconstitutional, and he ordered a temporary ban on those provisions.
Lewis suspended the part of the law that requires a finding of emergency medical condition and prohibits payments to acupuncturists, massage therapists and chiropractors. He said the law violates the right of access to the courts found in the Florida Constitution.
But the appeals court contended that those seeking to block enforcement of the law had not shown they were actually being harmed by it.
"Without showing of an actual denial of access to courts ... the provider plaintiffs lack standing to assert this claim," states the unsigned opinion.
The ruling, however, does not end the ongoing lawsuit challenging the new law.
Florida legislators passed the state's no-fault insurance law - also known as Personal Injury Protection - in the early 1970s to ensure that anyone hurt in an automobile wreck could obtain medical treatment without delay, while waiting for a case to be resolved.
The law provides that a driver's insurance company pay up to $10,000 to cover medical bills and lost wages after an accident, no matter who's at fault. All Florida drivers are required to carry PIP insurance.
Over the years, however, authorities have voiced concern that Florida has become a leading state for staged accidents, especially in the Tampa and Miami-Dade metropolitan areas, by those intent on filing bogus PIP claims.
Last year, Gov. Rick Scott made an overhaul bill (HB 119) a cornerstone of his legislative agenda, saying it would help tamp down millions of dollars in PIP fraud. Acupuncture practitioners, massage therapists and chiropractors - angry at being cut out of PIP payments - eventually filed suit.
The changes also limited coverage for medical treatment to $2,500 if an injured person could not show an emergency medical condition.
A trade organization that represents insurers praised the decision by the appeals court. Insurers have contended the changes in the law will save drivers money, although some legislators have complained that promised savings have not materialized.
"Today's ruling is a great victory for consumers and allows insurers to carry out these badly needed reforms," said Michael Carlson, executive director of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida.
In his initial ruling earlier this year, Lewis criticized the no-fault law as one that intrudes into the "free market arena with government mandates" since it limits medical coverage while at the same time limiting access to the courts by injured motorists.
Some Republican legislators have argued that it may be time to scrap the no-fault law and replace it with a different type of auto insurance.