Battle over legal fee cap in claims bills reaches Supreme Court
A high-stakes battle over whether the Legislature can cap legal fees in claims bills played out Thursday in oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court.
The case involves a claim approved by the 2012 Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott that awarded $15 million to the family of Aaron Edwards, a Palm Beach County boy who suffered brain damage as the result of negligence at Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers. (A court approved a $30.8 million settlement). The bill, HB 965, capped legal fees to $100,000, or less than 1 percent of the total award.
The personal injury law firm of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley sued the state. The firm's attorney, Edna Caruso, cited a statute that entitles lawyers in claim bills to receive up to 25 percent of the total award or about $3.75 million in the Edwards case. A lot of money is at stake as well as the issue of whether firms that devote years to seeking justice for acts of negligence will be less likely to represent families of victims.
The legal question is the power of the Legislature, and whether it can impose a much lower cap. The firm's name partner, Christian Searcy, sighed deeply and made a passing reference to the "mean-spirited intent" of former House Speaker Dean Cannon and former House Rules Chairman Gary Aubuchon, who set the House agenda in the 2012 session.
The Senate and House filed briefs asserting that legislators have the absolute discretion to pass or not pass a claim bill and to limit legal fees. "All decisions regarding compensating a claimant, including the manner and amount of such compensation as well as whether to provide any compensation at all, are wholly within the Legislature's discretion," their lawyers argued.
"No one can dictate to the Legislature how much to award in a claim bill," Chief Justice Jorge Labarga told a lawyer for Searcy Denney, Edna Caruso, who held her ground and said: "They (legislators) have no authority over attorney's fees."
Justice Peggy Quince said the case raises a fundamental issue of possible denial of access to the court. "We would be putting plaintiffs in a very precarious position, and they don't have access to lawyers. Who's going to take their cases?" Quince asked.
Assistant Attorney General Rachel Nordby, representing the state, warned justices that if Searcy Denny wins, the Legislature would be less likely to pass future claim bills.