TALLAHASSEE — A $24.8 million medical negligence claim against the University of South Florida Tampa is proceeding swiftly through the legislative process
At issue is a claim by Amara and Daniel Estrada from a 2007 case in which they claimed USF's chief geneticist failed to identify a genetic disorder in the Estradas' firstborn. He then did not warn them of the 25 percent risk that the syndrome would recur in a subsequent child.
The Estradas now have two mentally impaired sons who will need lifelong care, a jury determined.
Because the university is a public institution protected from liability by sovereign immunity, the Legislature must pass a claims bill before the family can collect any award exceeding $200,000.
The award bill, the costliest claim to be heard in the Senate so far, passed through the Health Regulation Committee in a 5-2 vote this week.
That quickness of the bill's progression raised some eyebrows.
"You don't get any faster track than that," said J.M. "Mac'' Stipanovich, a USF lobbyist Thursday.
At least four partners in Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley, the West Palm Beach law firm that represented the Estradas, each contributed the maximum $500 donation to the campaign of Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, last year.
Atwater spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof dismissed the notion that campaign contributions were a factor in this case, noting other claims bills have also been heard in committee this month.
"He does not have a pattern of reacting because someone may have supported him," she said.
The Senate bill's sponsor, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, said he never discussed the measure with Atwater. Jones, who sits on the Health Regulation Committee, said the committee wanted a Tampa Bay lawmaker to file the bill, so he volunteered.
"The point is these two children need to be cared for," he said.
The Senate's legal staff initially determined the state could not afford to pay the award.
Then the bill was amended so that USF's insurer would be responsible.
University officials said the verdict was excessive and warned the bill could set a dangerous precedent for all government institutions protected by sovereign immunity.
"The deductibles and premiums will increase geometrically," Stipanovich said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.