Tallahassee, FL - Every year Floridians injured by some branch of government lobby for legislation that could grant them millions of dollars in compensation, but as in years past, nobody knows yet whether cash-strapped lawmakers will consider doling out a dime.
Lawmakers have filed more than 60 bills on behalf of Floridians who are seeking relief for a wide variety of tragic situations the damages for which exceed the $200,000 cap that government agencies can pay without Legislative intervention.
In one case, a young Tallahassee woman turned police informant died at the hands of the people she was trying to gather information about for the police. In another, a speeding sheriff’s deputy hit another car, causing paralysis and brain damage to a Broward County high school senior. Another man is seeking compensation for serving prison time for a crime he didn’t commit.
Neither new House Speaker Dean Cannon nor Senate President Mike Haridopolos has indicated yet whether he will allow these victims or their families to collect. Last year, then-House Speaker Larry Cretul limited legislative review to claims bills with awards of less than $500,000.
A spokesman for Haridopolos said there has been no decision on how claims bills would be handled, but Cannon’s spokeswoman hinted there could be some parameters set for the proposals.
“There likely will be some limitations, but the specific details of any claims bill limitations have not yet been discussed,” said Cannon spokeswoman Katie Betta.
In the meantime, lawmakers, victims and their families simply have to wait to see if they can bring these measures before the full Legislature for a vote.
“I’m operating under the assumption that each bill that’s filed is going to be referred to committees and it’s the job of the person to go convince our colleagues that that’s how we ought to spend the money,” said state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
Negron is sponsoring a claims bill for a man named Eric Brody, who was a high school senior in 1998 when he was hit by a sheriff's deputy who was running late for work. Brody was in a coma for six months, and now is confined to a wheelchair with severe brain damage and a limited ability to speak.
“I think it is a compelling case where the state does need to act, so I’m going to pursue it,” he said.
A jury awarded Brody more than $30 million, but Florida law caps damages a government entity can pay to $200,000. Any amount over that has to be approved by the Legislature with the passage of a claims bill. The insurance company for the sheriff’s office and the Brody family have also continued to negotiate, though without much success.
The bill has made it through Senate committees previously, but has struggled in the House. The bill’s huge price tag -- $30.7 million – has seemed daunting to some lawmakers who questioned whether the state should approve such a large amount.
“The Brodys are frustrated,” said family attorney Lance Block. “The Legislature has chosen to protect a multibillion insurance company at the expense of Eric’s recovery and the taxpayers of Florida who are footing the bill for his treatment.”
OTHER MAJOR CLAIMS BILLS
-- SB 18 would give $24.8 million to Daniel and Amara Estrada. In 2002, the Estradas gave birth to their first child, who was severely impaired. Following the birth, a University of South Florida geneticist failed to diagnose Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome and subsequently tell the Estradas that they had a 25 percent chance of conceiving another child with the same syndrome. Two years later, the couple had another son who also was born with severe disabilities.
-- SB 52 would give $1.7 million to Larry Bostic, who was wrongfully imprisoned for more than 18 years. He would also receive tuition waivers at a state college or university and enrollment in the State of Florida Health Insurance System.
-- SB 68 would give an unspecified amount to the family of Rachel Hoffman, who was killed while working as an informant for the Tallahassee police department.