Carl Abbott could be the poster child for a fractured system that makes it extremely difficult for people to get compensated when they’ve been harmed by the government.
The North Palm Beach man, struck by a Palm Beach County school bus in 2008, has been waiting for the Legislature to approve a $1.9 million settlement with the school board for catastrophic injuries that left him needing around-the-clock care.
For two years, lawmakers have failed to sign off on the settlement, which would allow Abbot’s son, David, to move his father from a nursing home to a rehabilitation facility where the severely brain-damaged Abbot, 67 at the time of his accident, could have his feeding tube removed and learn to speak and walk again.
But now, at the behest of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, a special House committee is exploring ways to simplify the claims process, which can take years and require the aid of powerful Tallahassee lobbyists, even when local governments have agreed to pay for their wrongdoing or negligence.
At a meeting of the House Select Committee on Claims Bills on Monday, Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, said the panel’s goal is to decide whether “this process can be renovated or whether it needs to be torn down and rebuilt.”
The committee is considering an expedited process for undisputed claims like Abbott’s.
In 2009, the school board unanimously agreed to pay $2 million for Abbott’s care. The school district already paid $100,000, the maximum allowed without legislative approval under state law.
Under the House proposal, still in its early stages, undisputed claims would be handled by a special committee early in the legislative process and, if approved, sent to the floor for a full vote as a package, similar to the state Senate’s “consent calendar,” in which bundled local bills are given an up-or-down vote.
Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, called the settlements “low-hanging fruit” ripe for a legislative fix.
Grant said his intention is “to try and get the legislature out of the claims process as much as possible.”
Citizens can sue the government if it takes their property or violates their civil rights, Lance Block, Abbott’s attorney, told the committee on Monday. But if a citizen has been catastrophically injured, he or she must get the approval of a judge, the legislature and the governor.
“This is the only system where a citizen has to go through all three branches of government to be compensated to be made whole,” said Block, who has successfully shepherded numerous claims bills.
Lawmakers have signed off on just 19 of 105 claims bills filed over the past three years, and the number of claims bills filed has gone down despite a dramatic increase in the state’s population, Block said.
Navigating the process is even more difficult when claimants seek redress from governments that are not insured. To “incentivize” local governments into getting insurance, Grant said, he is considering a proposal that would lift the current caps on what they could pay without legislative approval from $200,000 for individuals to a much higher amount and eliminating the $300,000-per-incident cap altogether.
Local government bodies — including public hospitals and sheriffs offices — are hoping the Legislature will impose stricter limits on the amount of tax dollars they must pay to people who are catastrophically injured.
Mark Delegal, a lobbyist representing the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, said his group would support lifting the caps but only if damages were calculated in a specific way.
Trial lawyers favor doing away with government’s sovereign immunity and allowing the courts to handle the cases, similar to the 1945 Federal Tort Claims Act that gave citizens the right to sue the government.
The state already imposes a 25 percent cap on fees that can be split between attorneys and lobbyists.
David Abbott, who traveled to Tallahassee to appear before the committee Monday, was not allowed to speak about specifics of his father’s case, only the claims bill process, which he called frustrating.
“Why do we have to keep arguing over the same facts? It’s just not fair,” Abbott said. “It seems like a waste of time.”
Although the House approved his claims bill last year, the legislative session ended before the Senate acted. And some senators balked at the amount of attorneys fees, Abbott told the committee.
“That set us back another year. It’s very disheartening. He still needs help. He still lives in a nursing home and he’s getting very, very limited help,” he said.
What is a claims bill?
The state and local governments have “sovereign immunity” protecting them from lawsuits when someone is injured and capping the amount local governments can pay at $200,000 for individuals and $300,000 per incident. The limits are $100,000 for individuals and $200,000 per incident for accidents that occurred before Oct. 1, 2011.
Settlements in excess of the limits require legislative approval, which can take years, even when the government admits it was at fault.