Individuals who have been injured or harmed by a local government such as a school board could get settlements of up to $3 million without the Legislature’s approval, under a House proposal gaining steam over the objections of cities and counties.
The plan aims to make local governments buy insurance, by punishing those who don’t. The claims bill overhaul is the first proposed top-to-bottom revamp of a system that critics — including many lawmakers — say is too political and cumbersome for victims.
Under current law the state and local governments have sovereign immunity that caps payments for victims who have been injured or harmed at $200,000 without legislative approval.
But a plan floated by the House Select Committee on Claims Bills would increase that cap to $3 million for individuals and $4.5 million per incident – if the local governments have insurance. The plan also would prohibit anyone from suing the state for anything above that amount, something lawyers for injured plaintiffs say is far too low.
There would be no cap on damages for local governments that do not have insurance or that self-insure, meaning they could face huge pay-outs if they do something wrong.
“My intention is to put a large number over here that says if you act reasonably and you control the taxpayer’s budget responsibly, that this number never becomes relevant,” Committee Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, said after the meeting.
Last year, lawmakers agreed to a $10.75 million settlement for Eric Brody, who was left brain-damaged and confined to a wheelchair after a speeding Broward County sheriff’s deputy rammed into his car. The agreement was dragged out because the insurance company fought the settlement and both sides hired prominent Tallahassee lobbyists. The final settlement was the estimated amount of how much it would cost to care for Brody for the rest of his life.
The measure would reduce the number of claims bills that come before the Legislature, said Lance Block, a lawyer who has handled claims bills for more than two decades and has successfully shepherded some of the highest-paid settlements through the Legislature, including Brody’s. The changes would improve the current system but the cap on damages is “a bitter pill,” Block said.
“This bill doesn’t necessarily ensure justice to the people who have been hurt the worst. And that’s where the bill falls short. And that’s where the current system also falls short. You can’t legislate heart,” said Block, who represents the family of Carl Abbott, a North Palm Beach man who was badly injured when a Palm Beach County school bus ran him over 2008.
Abbott’s son David has been waiting for two years for the Legislature to approve a $1.9 million settlement that was reached with the school board in 2009. David Abbott plans to use the money to move his father into a facility where he can get rehabilitative care.
“Had this bill been in effect when the Abbotts settled with the school board, Mr. Abbott would not be living in a nursing home, living on a feeding tube and not getting any therapy. His life would be totally different,” Block said.
The plan also would require all claims to be subject to two trials. A jury would decide on who is at fault and a judge would decide the amount of the damages. Block said that would be an extra burden on claimants.
Grant said he wants “to get the Legislature out of the business” of claims bills altogether.
“They’re entirely too arbitrary,” Grant said after the meeting. “They’re entirely too speculative. I think the process is too political on both sides. So when somebody’s hiring a PR firm to try and sell a sad story as to why a claims bill should be passed or when an insurance company’s taking tactics to prevent the settlement of a valid claim, I don’t think those behaviors belong in this process.”
Lawmakers raised the caps from $100,000 to $200,000 for individuals and $200,000 to $300,000 per incident two years ago. A ten-fold increase in the caps is too high and would have “a significant impact on operations of our municipal governments, argued Florida League of Cities lobbyist Kraig Conn.
And it is unfair for the state to exempt itself from the new caps, Conn told the committee. “What’s good for the goose has got to be good for the gander,” he said.
But Grant said Monday the state’s sovereign immunity is more complicated to change and he wanted to start with a more simple reform. “What the cities and counties should be looking at is, they’re never going to have to deal with this if they comply with this,” he said.
The current proposal would also require lobbyists representing claimants to disclose if they have represented an insurance company or a local government previously and to disclose whom they represent.
Rep. Bill Hager, who serves on the committee, has never voted in favor of a claims bill because of what he called “the inherent mischief” in the process.
Hager wants to impose a limit to lobbying fees similar to the 25 percent cap on lawyers’ fees now in state law. And he wants to require that claims bills be filed by lawmakers who represent the districts where the events took place. Lawmakers rarely file local claims bills because they do not want to go against municipalities, fire departments or sheriff’s offices in their district.
And he objected to the proposed $3 million cap as too high. “That’s not going to stand,” Hager said. “Those are way too high.”
Florida law limits how much people can recover in court from state and local governments to $200,000 per individual or $300,000 per occurrence unless they get legislative approval for more. A House bill proposes raising the cap for local governments with insurance to $3 million per individual or $4.5 million per occurrence.