Florida House Passes 3 High-Profile Claims Bills

By BILL KACZOR | March 7, 2012

Three high-profile claims bills that would let victims of governmental negligence receive millions in compensation cleared the Florida House on Monday.

The bills now go to the Senate.

One bill (SB 4) would require that an insurance company for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office pay $10.75 million to 32-year-old Eric Brody. He suffered brain damage and paralysis 14 years ago when a speeding deputy, who was late for work, crashed into his car.

Another measure (HB 965) would require Lee County’s public hospital system to pay $15 million to 14-year-old Aaron Edwards. The boy, who now lives with his mother in Canyon City, Colo., suffers from cerebral palsy and other injuries due to negligence at his birth.

The third bill (HB 7131) would authorize the city of Tallahassee to compensate the parents of murdered undercover police informant Rachel Hoffman $2.4 million. The 23-year-old woman, a recent Florida State University graduate, was killed during a botched drug sting in 2008. She agreed to participate after being caught with marijuana and some pills that she didn’t have a prescription for.

Aaron and Brody, both confined to wheel chairs and unable to speak as a result of their injuries, watched from the House gallery with family members as did Hoffman’s father.

The passage of Brody’s bill came in marked contrast to last year when similar legislation died in the House without a floor vote as Brody and his parents, Chuck and Sharon Brody, of Sunrise waited in the gallery until the wee hours of the session’s final day.

“Finally, justice for Eric,” Chuck Brody said after the 107-7 roll call.

The bill passed without discussion or debate for the amount of a recent settlement with Fairmont Specialty Insurance Co., formerly known as Ranger Insurance Co., which had fought the claim since a jury awarded the family $30.6 million in 2005. The most, though, they could receive under Florida law without passage of a claims bill was $200,000.

The Senate last year passed a $12 million bill and previously passed this year’s version for the settled amount. The bill, though, must go back to the Senate because the House amended it to require that the money go into a special needs trust to pay for therapy and around-the-clock care Eric Brody has been getting from his parents since his injury.

The amendment also limited the fee of their lawyer, Lance Block, to $400,000. Chuck Brody said that’s not enough for what Block has done.

“Without Lance, it never would have gotten this far,” he said.

Final Senate passage is virtually assured as the Brody bill is a top priority of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

The Hoffman bill also reflects a settlement that Tallahassee city officials approved as a civil trial was about to begin in January. Block also represents the victim’s parents, Irv Hoffman and Marjorie Weiss.

Hoffman, who visited his daughter’s grave in Palm Harbor before traveling to Tallahassee, said the claims bill, which passed 99-13, will not bring closure.

“Rachel was my universe, and the pain is endless, it’s daily,” said Hoffman, who has a specialty license plate that reads, “RACHEL H.”

Hoffman, a psychologist, said he’s already given out seven scholarships in memory of his daughter and much of the claims money would be used for that and other charitable purposes.

Unlike the other two cases, there’s been no settlement for Aaron. His case also went to a jury, which awarded him $30.8 million, about twice as much as the claims bill would pay.

The Lee Memorial Health System, which did not have liability insurance, has fought the legislation, at one point asking lawmakers to reduce the award to $5 million and pay for it with state funds.

Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, opposed the bill during floor debate, arguing the hospital system would be forced to close pediatric intensive care beds in order to pay the claim.

Aaron’s mother, Mitzi Roden, later responded that the hospital has $500 million in reserves and should easily be able to make the payment.

Although he is physically impaired, Aaron is bright, can communicate by computer and has closely followed the progress of his bill.

“He started to cry” as Monday’s session begin, Roden said. “He was pretty afraid that it wasn’t going to pass.”

The roll call was 97-14.

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