- By Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
David Abbott could be angry. Instead, he says, he’s just numb.
For three years, the North Palm Beach man waited for the Florida Legislature to pass a bill that would give his father the money he needed to recover from catastrophic injuries he suffered when he was run over by a Palm Beach County school bus in 2008. Even a letter from Carl Abbott’s doctor, warning that the elderly man could die unless he was moved into a nursing home that could provide more effective therapy, failed to move the tight-fisted Legislature.
Abbott’s father died in June at age 73, never getting the $1.9 million the school board agreed to pay for its bus driver’s negligence.
“I’m kind of numbed by the whole thing,” Abbott, 50, said last week. “He was injured to the point where he needed care and he just fell through the cracks. I wish the state of Florida had a better system to take care of people.”
Abbott is not alone.
The owner of Tell A Friend Automotive in Riviera Beach, he is one of dozens of people in Palm Beach County and scores throughout the state who have learned that it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to collect damages for horrific injuries caused by government wrongdoing in Florida.
Under the state’s system, even if a jury finds a government is at fault and awards damages — even if a government agency agrees to pay — the most those injured by state or local agencies can collect from the government is $200,000. To get more money, state lawmakers must pass what is known as a claims bill.
And for the previous two years, then Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, refused to allow any claims bills through the upper chamber, meaning none passed the Legislature at all.
This year, with new Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, once again at least allowing claims bills to be heard, the outlook may be brighter for those who say they need far more than $200,000 for devastating injuries or deaths caused by crashes involving government vehicles, bad decisions by state child care workers or medical mistakes at government-run hospitals.
“It’s far better this year than in the last two years,” said attorney Lance Block, who specializes in shepherding claims bills through the GOP-controlled legislature. “I think it’s more likely than not that locally agreed bills will pass and become law. What’s not clear is whether they will take up bills that were agreed to with the state.”
Block’s view, if correct, is good news for Abbott, who is still dealing with an avalanche of bills for his father’s care. Under bills that have cleared both Senate and House subcommittees, he would get $633,333 over three years.
Likewise, such a scenario would help the family of Manuel Antonio Matute. The 60-year-old was killed in 2008 when his car was hit head-on by a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy who lost control of his cruiser on U.S. 441. Like the county school board did in Abbott’s case, the sheriff’s office agreed to pay the claims bill. Having already paid Matute’s family $128,000, it has agreed to pay another $372,000 if the Legislature agrees.
Less clear is what will happen to those who are seeking money for misconduct by state agencies. That includes a former Wellington youth who was sexually assaulted by a predatory foster child whom the Florida Department of Children & Families placed in his family’s home without warning his parents of the youth’s deep-seeded psychological ills.
With the Senate and House arguing over $4.2 billion in spending, statehouse watchers worry that people — like the youth, who was awarded $5 million by a Palm Beach County jury in 2013 — will become victims of budget wrangling.
“I’m just hoping he isn’t an unintended victim of the budget scenario,” said attorney Howard Talenfeld, who represents the teen. “This is a window of opportunity to try to save this young man’s life.”
Because DCF has agreed to pay for treatment for the youth, identified only as C.M.H., he stands a better chance than those with cases that government agencies continue to contest.
Altavious Carter, for instance, has yet to persuade Palm Beach County school officials to pay him the $1 million a jury in 2010 said he deserves for treatment of a broken neck he suffered when a school bus slammed into the back of a car driven by his basketball coach. Carter, who will soon graduate from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, was a 14-year-old student at Summit Christian School when the 2005 crash occurred.
His attorney, Brian Denney, said he’s optimistic the Legislature will finally pass his claims bill — the fifth time it has been filed. But, others said, without the school board’s consent, the chance for passage is grim.
Attorney Stephan LeClainche said he didn’t even file a claims bill to get the $1.7 million a jury awarded the family of a 3-year-old Pahokee girl who was raped on a school bus by a 15-year-old boy in 2007. During the trial, the school district acknowledged the assault occurred but said the girl was too young and mentally challenged to remember it.
“It’s difficult enough when you have an unopposed claims bill but it puts you way ahead of the game,” LeClainche said of why the bill was put on hold. “I find it a little amazing in a circumstance like this, when a little girl was raped on a bus, to take the position they have taken.”
In a written statement, the school district’s legal team said: “We don’t comment on legal strategy, however as a general rule we do attempt to settle claims in litigation. Unfortunately, it is not always possible for the parties to reach an agreement before trial.”
Attorneys also suspect opposition from DCF sunk a bill that would provide an additional $3.75 million to Victor Barahona, who was found with severe injuries in his adoptive father’s pest control van along Interstate 95 near Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard on Valentine’s Day 2011. The decomposing body of his 10-year-old twin, Nubia, was found in the back of the van. Their adoptive parents, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, of Miami, are awaiting trial on murder charges. Jorge Barahona also faces an attempted murder charge.
In letters to Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll in February said he supported the claims bill. Having already paid Victor $1.25 million, he said the agency wanted to make good on its pledge to pay the youth $5 million for ignoring obvious warning signs of abuse. However, bills filed in both chambers have gone nowhere.
DCF lawyers might have balked because of lawsuits filed in September on behalf of the twins’ adopted siblings, who also suffered at the hands of their adoptive parents, said attorney Todd Falzone, who represents one of the siblings.
“There seems to be no one at the helm of DCF or state government who is willing to step up and do the right thing for these innocent children,” Falzone said.
A spokeswoman for Gardiner said his policy in the Senate “has been to refer the bills to the appropriate committees and then defer to committee chairs who set the agendas to determine which bills to hear in their committees” just as he does with other types of bills.
Crisafulli said in a written statement Friday that all claims that local governments have agreed to pay have passed out of committee and will likely be voted on soon by the full House. “At this time, the House is not considering any state claim bills or local contested claim bills,” he said. “However there remains time in Session should the Senate choose to send us other claim bills.”
Not everyone in the chamber feels that way. When the House Civil Justice Subcommittee approved all 14 uncontested local government claims bills it considered last week, only one member, Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, opposed them.
Before casting the lone vote against them all, Wood quoted Article 10, Section 13 of the Florida Constitution: “Provision may be made by general law for bringing suit against the state as to all liabilities now existing or hereafter originating.”
While there is a general law allowing for claims bills, he said he questioned its constitutionality. “We are a society of laws, not a society of individuals deciding for individuals,” he said.
House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, of West Palm Beach, said the Legislature should do the right thing, however. Noting that the House last week approved $690 million in tax cuts, he said money is not the issue. “It’s simple. It’s priorities,” he said. “Of all the things we do during our 60-day session, addressing human suffering should be part of it.”
But, Abbott said, he’s not holding his breath.
“I haven’t given up but I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. “When I can put the money in the bank, when I can write checks to people we owe money, I’ll believe it. But it’s not going to bring my dad back.”