Emotion-packed bills that would compensate two men whose lives were turned upside down by governmental mistakes will get another chance during Florida’s 2012 legislative session after the measures died in the frantic final hours of the 2011 session.
They are among several high-profile claims bills lawmakers will consider in the session that begins Jan. 10.
One measure would benefit Eric Brody, who suffered brain damage and paralysis when he was 18 after a speeding Broward County sheriff’s deputy – running late to work – crashed into his car in 1998. He is seeking more than $15 million – under Florida law, a government agency can’t pay an individual lawsuit award or claim for more than $200,000 without approval of the Legislature and governor.
Another is for William Dillon, who spent 27 years in prison for a Brevard County murder he didn’t commit. He is seeking more than $810,000.
Both are top priorities for Senate President Mike Haridopolos. The Senate passed each during the final week of the 2011 session in May before going to the House.
Brody, who requires a wheelchair and has a severe speech impediment, waited with his parents in the House gallery into the wee hours of the session’s last day for a roll call that never happened.
“It was like he didn’t exist and the bill didn’t exist,” said Chuck Brody, Eric’s father. “We were not told why.”
Haridopolos, who was near tears after the House adjourned without acting, doesn’t want that to happen again. The Merritt Island Republican says he expects the Senate to again pass both bills on the first day of the 60-day 2012 session, and again send them to the House.
“We’ll give it to them with 59 days to spare so there will be plenty of time if they choose to take them up,” Haridopolos said. “My strategy is pretty straightforward. It’s the right thing to do.”
Bills also have been filed for the parents of Florida State University football player Devaughn Darling, who died in February 2001 of apparent cardiac arrhythmia after a workout, and 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman, a recent Florida State graduate who was serving as an undercover informant for Tallahassee police when she was fatally shot during a botched drug sting in 2008.
Other measures would compensate parents for the death of Jean A. Pierre Kamel, a 13-year-old Palm Beach County boy who was shot in front of his school by another teen, and Franklin Weekley, whose body was discovered when workers demolished a neighboring building two years after he vanished from a state facility for the mentally handicapped in the Panhandle town of Marianna.
Bills also have been filed on behalf of more than 300 men who’ve alleged they were physically and sexually abused at a Marianna reform school when they were boys, and Brian Pitts, an unpaid lobbyist for a group called Justice-2-Jesus, for an allegedly illegal one-year jail sentence he received for practicing law without a license.
Several more bills have been filed in other cases of death and injury, most the result of traffic accidents.
Some claims bills are filed even after settlements or court verdicts against a state or local governmental agency.
Ordinarily, governments cannot be sued under the common law principle of sovereign immunity. Florida, though, has a limited waiver that allows payments of up to $200,000 per person or $300,000 per incident under a law that went into effect Oct. 1. Before then the limits were $100,000 per person and $200,000 per event.
Any compensation beyond those limits requires passage of a claims bill. Most have to be filed for many years before they are considered.
While the Brody and Dillon bills are high priorities for Haridopolos – he’s personally sponsoring the latter – they rank much lower for House Speaker Dean Cannon. The Winter Park Republican said lawmakers should focus first on issues that affect all Floridians such as the state budget, but added that he’ll try to accommodate Haridopolos.
Cannon said the Dillon bill did not get a floor vote last session because it never had a committee hearing in the House. As for the Brody bill, he said lawmakers just ran out of time.
The Senate, meanwhile, refused to pass unrelated legislation favored by the House in the waning hours, but Haridopolos wouldn’t say whether he thought there was a connection.
“We can’t go back in time, and we’re not going back in time,” he said. “I think these bills stand on their own quite well. I’m not going to negotiate for them.”
Some lawmakers are philosophically opposed to claims bills. That includes Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is in line to become Senate president next November. He votes against most claims bills but made an exception for Dillon’s.
“The claims bill process depends on how hard the biscuits were that morning at breakfast,” Gaetz said. “It depends upon how good your lobbyist is and how much he gets paid and how well connected he is. It doesn’t depend on the merits of the case necessarily.”
A jury awarded Brody nearly $31 million, but a bill (SB 4) sponsored by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, would authorize only half – $15.6 million. A companion bill (HB 445) in the House calls for the full amount.
Even the lower amount would be one of the largest claims bills ever, but it wouldn’t cost taxpayers anything.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to sign over to the Brody family its right to file a “bad faith” claim against the sheriff’s insurance company for the authorized amount.
That claim would allege Ranger Insurance Co. repeatedly refused to settle for the policy limit of $3 million before the Brodys’ lawsuit against the sheriff’s office resulted in a verdict 10 times that amount.
Lance Block, the Brodys’ lawyer, said the company’s lawyers told him he’d never get a claims bill passed.
“And they spent a lot of money hiring lobbyists,” Block said. “So far they’ve bottled it up for four years.”
Ranger is offering to settle now for $8.5 million, which would include Block’s fee. Benacquisto said that won’t pay for the kind of around-the-clock care and treatment Brody needs. She said a study shows it’ll take $10.1 million just for a life care plan.
Peter Antonacci, a lawyer for Ranger, told a Senate committee the company would fight the bad faith claim in court.
“He has to win every step of the way in order for him to receive a recovery,” Antonacci said. “If he loses any step along the way he will receive nothing while he remains on public assistance.”
Block, though, said Brody would be entitled to the $3 million policy limit if the bill passes regardless of the bad faith claim, but he acknowledged there’s a possibility he might not the rest.
Florida law compensates people who are wrongfully convicted $50,000 for each year in prison, but Dillon doesn’t qualify because he had a prior conviction for felony drug possession. Therefore, he needs a claims bill. His legislation (SB 2, HB 445) would pay him the $810,000, or $30,000 for every year he was imprisoned. He was freed in 2008 after the DNA on a bloody shirt that the killer left behind in 1981 didn’t match his.
Now a singer-musician living in Chapel Hill, N.C., Dillon has released a CD titled “Black Robes and Lawyers.” He says he’s not bitter.
“For me it’s just sadness,” Dillon said. “Bitterness doesn’t do anything in our lives. It eats us up. I’m just glad to be supported. For so long I felt it was just me.”
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