Court gives ex-cop another shot at disability benefits from Lake Worth

Seventeen years after Joseph Viera claims he was catastrophically injured while working as a Lake Worth police officer, the 51-year-old father of four is still battling the city over health care benefits that injured officers are suppose to receive under a special Florida law.

In a ruling that could help other police officers in similar straits, a West Palm Beach-based appeals court recently ruled that the city should provide health insurance for Viera and possibly his wife and his two youngest children. However, despite the ruling by Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal, Viera is no closer to getting coverage — or reimbursement for medical bills he has already paid — than he was when he sued the city in 2010.

Attorney Glen Torcivia, who is representing Lake Worth, pledged to continue the fight.

While the legal arguments are complex, the underlying reason is straight-forward: City officials don’t believe Viera.

“The city is tired of him milking the system,” Torcivia told a Palm Beach County judge during a hearing last year. “He injured his knee in a car accident. There is no catastrophic injury. You know, this is not some brave officer who faced down a gunman. No, he got hurt in a car accident.”

While he apologized after Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo chided him for his blunt assessment of Viera’s claims, Torcivia made clear in a recent interview that neither his, nor the city’s, feelings have changed. “We don’t think he’s entitled to the money at all,” he said, adding that Viera received a $1 million settlement from worker’s compensation.

Viera, who now lives in Colorado, said he has had multiple back surgeries since falling off a wall while chasing a suspect in May 2000 — injuries that were exacerbated seven months later when his cruiser was struck by a car while he was en route to investigate reports of a fight.

“What they have been doing since the start is immoral and unjust,” he said in an email. “I am disabled. I am extremely limited in my activities because of the vast injuries and a lot of doctor’s appointments — several a month.”

Attorney Ryan Wynne, who represents Viera, said he is perplexed by the city’s stance. Even though the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office took over the Lake Worth Police Department in 2008, the city is obligated under a state law to provide Viera health insurance. “I don’t understand why they’re not trying to do right by a cop who got injured on the job,” he said.

The Florida Legislature in the 1990s passed a special law designed to make sure police officers and their families continue to receive health coverage if on-the-job injuries made it impossible for them to work. The law requires an agency to provide health insurance for the injured officer, his or her spouse and their children who are under 25. Even if the officer dies, the spouse and children would continue to get coverage, according to the law.

Caracuzzo, though, ruled that Viera waited too long to demand coverage under the law because he filed the lawsuit after a four-year statute of limitations expired.

But the appeals court recently overruled Caracuzzo’s decision, instead finding that a statute of limitations in an ongoing obligation like an insurance-payment case extends from when the lawsuit was filed. So, the appeals court ruled, the city should provide coverage and pay medical bills Viera had incurred since January 2006 — four years before he filed suit.

While the appellate court ruled that Lake Worth was obligated to provide Viera insurance coverage, it didn’t address who in his family is entitled to coverage. Instead it returned the case to Palm Beach County Circuit Court, where that issue will be up to Judge Joseph Marx to sort out.

Torcivia acknowledged that the appellate ruling could help other injured police officers in South Florida who are denied coverage and then wait too long to file suit. But, he said, few officers are in Viera’s predicament. Those who are injured severely get the benefits they deserve, he said.

John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, agreed. “Not one city or the county has ever tried to deny our members their benefits,” he said. The union provides attorneys to its members to make sure that doesn’t happen, he said. The outcome may be different for non-union officers like Viera, he said.

Wynne said he plans to seek an unspecified amount in damages for Viera. Torcivia said he plans to fight those efforts, pointing out that Viera got the sizable settlement from worker’s compensation and has received health coverage through Medicaid, which should exempt Lake Worth from paying Viera anything. He said that while he said he supports police officers, he and city officials must also protect taxpayers.

For his part, Viera said he hopes his lawsuit helps others. “I have the satisfaction of knowing that any other officers that are catastrophically injured may have an easier chance at getting the benefits owed to them and hopefully (the lawsuit) will encourage the employers to do the right thing from the beginning,” he said.

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