For years, the Florida Legislature has done a lousy job of getting money to people who successfully sue a city, county or public school after a death or serious injury. It’s little wonder that lawmakers want to change the way the money is paid out.
But this year’s efforts at reform have produced little but tumult and stalemate. Reform would make it easier for families to recover money already awarded to them in settlements or by judges or juries, but the proposal being pushed in the House could unnecessarily increase local governments’ insurance costs. The resulting opposition from cities, counties and school districts is stymieing reform, and has led to senseless vows that no one this year will be granted the payouts to which they are entitled.
The victims of this gridlock are people like Carl Abbott, a North Palm Beach man who was struck by a school bus in 2008 and won a $1.9 million settlement from the Palm Beach County School Board in 2009. He is on a feeding tube in a nursing home, but the Legislature has yet to approve the school board’s payout by passing a so-called “claims bill” in his case. Since the Senate president has pledged to approve no claims bills this year unless the process is reformed — a possibility that Senate leaders have given up on — Mr. Abbott probably will have to wait a fifth year for the money he is owed.
Under the state’s current system, individuals suing local governments cannot win more than $200,000 in state court without special permission from the Legislature. In cases of tragic death or injury caused by government workers, much larger payouts are usually justified, to compensate for medical costs and the pain of victims’ loss. But political quarreling often delays payouts for years.
A proposal approved by a House committee would have raised the amount that individuals can win in court against a local government, eliminating the need for the Legislature to get involved in most cases. The plan would have put a new limit in place — $1 million. But that limit would only apply to local governments that took out liability insurance policies to cover such payouts. For governments that aren’t sufficiently insured, damages are unlimited. A Senate leader has called the House plan too contentious to consider this year.
The aim of this double standard — to encourage local governments to insure themselves against greater potential payouts — is of questionable benefit and has hardened municipal governments’ opposition. Removing it could make reform more palatable and allow the Legislature to fix a broken system.
for The Post Editorial Board