Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores wants to change what she sees as an overly political and broken claims bill process. These bills are how people who’ve sued the state or local governments get the money they’re owed. Right now, the state caps how much money it pays out, often leading to long, drawn out legal battles and years of waiting for claims bill approval.
Sovereign Immunity stems from the idea that a monarch, or in this case, a government, can do no wrong. Flores disagrees. She says the state’s $200,000 and $300,000 caps for payouts isn’t right and neither is the state's claims bill process, which is what victims have to get lawmakers to file in order to get court-ordered settlements greater than that amount paid out.
“The claims bill process sometimes comes down to ‘are you friends with the right person’. There’s got to be a better way to compensate a wronged person or family," Flores says.
She describes her bill as a conversation starter. The idea of raising the cap on sovereign immunity to $500,000 is one local governments oppose and trial lawyers like.
In Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee the Panhandle Area Education Consortium, and the Florida leagues of cities and counties all opposed Flores’s bill. Signing off in support was the Tallahassee-based legal firm Searcy, Denney, Scarolla, Barnhart and Schipley. It specializes in personal injury law.
Local governments would be on the hook for the increased costs, and according to a staff analysis of the bill, it could very well lead to an increase in lawsuits, and cost local governments more money. On the other hand, are the victims—the people who’ve been injured—like when the Department of Children and families fails to act when it knows of cases of abuse, or when a child gets hit by a school bus.
“I’ve had some claims bills for young people who were injured by a public entity. Namely at school," Democratic Minority Leader Audrey Gibson told the committee.
“One young man was shot and killed. Another family, a bus ran into them. And I think those families who are a part of the public deserve to have justice without necessarily having to come to the legislature.”
It can take years for the Legislature to approve a claims bill. In 2011 one of the most horrific cases of child abuse in the state led to the death of a young girl in foster care. Her brother was severely injured and needs medical care the rest of his life. The state didn’t approve a $3.75-million claims bill for Victor Barahona until 2017. Former FSU Football Player DeVaughn Darling’s claims bill languished in the legislature for more than 12 years after he died in 2001 following a grueling practice session where team coaches ignored signs that Darling was in trouble.
Many victims are still waiting.
In the past, Lawmakers have warred over the claims bill process. Some don’t like them due to the influence of lawyers and lobbyists who often get a portion of the settlements the state must pay. Families say they wouldn’t have to hire lawyers and lobbyists if the process was better.
“I don’t like windfalls. I don’t like pots of gold. I don’t like excessive fees that wind up more benefitting the law firm or lobbyists that help people, I don’t like claims bills...I’ve only filed one in my entire time in the House and Senate," says Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala). He's eschewed the claims bill process for the same reasons lots of lawmakers hate them. Flores's bill though, Baxley likes.
“There are adverse outcomes, and times of responsibility and valid damages. And I’d like an orderly system by which those needs are met and settled and I think this bill moves in that direction," he says.
Flores’ proposal cleared its first committee hurdle but she’s under no illusion the bill will get through others. There is no House sponsor for the measure—something that lowers the bill’s chances of making it through the Legislature. The House has also historically been opposed to claims bills.
"I’m not terribly confident it will pass in its current form this year. But I do hope we have a conversation about it. It’s something that has to continue beyond my tenure here. Because claims bills are always part of the process, and we’ve got to improve-in my opinion- the way we deal with them,' Flores says.
This is her last session as a state lawmaker. She’s term limited this year. She’s carrying two claims bills this year: One is for a South Florida man who was shot four times and paralyzed after a sheriff’s deputy mistook the man’s cell phone for a gun; and another man became a quadriplegic after a doctor recommended against a surgery despite evidence it was necessary.