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Claims bill would raise caps on court awards against local governments

Two House members are seeking to make far-reaching changes to the process by which the state and local governments pay out claims for deaths, injuries, and wrongful imprisonment.

Under current law, a legal doctrine known as “sovereign immunity” requires the Legislature to approve payment of any claim against the state or local governments in excess of $300,000 before it can be paid. Though the awards have been vetted in court and are often not in dispute, claimants with higher settlements must get individual claim bills through both legislative chambers and then signed by the governor, a process that usually takes years if it is successful at all.

RELATED: Complete Florida Legislature coverage

Claimants have been known to walk away after repeated frustrations in Tallahassee even if they have expended resources lobbying legislators. At least in some cases, it can lead to settlements with insurers for fractions of judgments.

Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach said he and Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, are “over it” when it comes to a claims process he calls slow and arbitrary and deserving of “a fiery death.”

“I’d say 90 percent of the legislators are over it, and they’re just sick of having to watch people come up here and not get what they deserve,” Jenne told The News Service of Florida.

Influence from lobbyists and insurance companies, along with agencies and municipalities responsible for damages, has stymied efforts to streamline the process, according to Jenne.

“But even they have to admit this is a flawed system,” Jenne said. “Where do you think these folks are going to go when this (settlement) money runs out and they have incredible medical bills? They’re either going to be dead or they’re going to become the state’s responsibility, so we’re paying for it anyway.”

Jenne and Grant are sponsoring legislation (HB 1305) to change the way claims are handled. The bill, dubbed the “Florida Fair Claims Act,” would raise caps on awards and authorize local governments to purchase umbrella insurance plans to cover damages, divorcing many payments from legislative approval.

For now, the bill is simply “placeholder” language, Jenne said, designed to encourage groups like local governments to the table to negotiate a permanent fix. His ultimate goal is to create a common pot of money funded by state and local governments to pay out claimant’s payments on an annual basis.

Grant chaired a Select Committee on Claim Bills in 2013 that developed a similar series of recommendations. The proposals received little traction, and the claims process remained unchanged.

Though Jenne conceded their new effort is unlikely to pass this year, he noted both lawmakers have plenty of eligibility left in their House tenures — six years for Jenne and eight for Grant — and said both are committed to making changes.

Grant is sponsoring two claim bills this session: one on behalf of a motorist awarded $8.7 million after she was struck by a Pasco County sheriff’s deputy at an intersection and left severely disabled, and another seeking $5.1 million for the relief of a young man who was sexually assaulted by a foster child placed in his household by the Department of Children and Families.

Jenne, who has carried dozens of claim bills dating back to his first stint in Tallahassee from 2006 to 2012, is also sponsoring multiple proposals this year, though as usual he expects a steep path to final approval.

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