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Two compensation claims clear hurdles in Florida Senate

TALLAHASSEE — A record-setting compensation claim for a paralyzed Broward man and a proposal to pay $1.8 million to the family of slain Broward Sheriff's Office Deputy Todd Fatta passed key Senate hurdles on Tuesday but face varying prospects in the waning days of the legislative session.

Over objections from the Sheriff's Office, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee overwhelmingly endorsed a bill that would require the agency to pay $30.76 million to Eric Brody. Brody, then 18, was left paralyzed and brain damaged after a BSO cruiser struck his vehicle in 1998.

The jury awarded the money to Brody in 2005, but the state's constitution caps payments to those hurt or killed because of government actions at $200,000 unless the Legislature authorizes the payment in a so-called "claims bill."

The Brody claim is a staggering sum compared to most claims against the state and other government agencies, which generally total less than $2 million. And it comes in a year when the economy makes it unlikely that lawmakers will approve any claims that the parties haven't agreed to in advance.

In an effort to improve the bill's chances, it includes a provision that allows the Sheriff's Office to let the Brody family to pursue a bad faith claim against the agency's insurance company in exchange for an agreement that the family will not attempt to collect the money directly from BSO.

But prominent Tallahassee lobbyists hired on behalf of BSO to fight the claim argued the provision could set a precedent that would allow others to collect larger settlements from the state and other government agencies.

They also said before the trial the insurance company offered to pay Brody $3 million, the policy limit.

"Most persons in the state who are injured in an automobile accident would have nothing like that available to them," said Barry Richard, who is representing BSO.

Brody's attorney has said the settlement offer came too late to cover the family's rising medical and legal bills.

In contrast to the Brody claim, there was little debate as the Senate panel endorsed the $1.8 million payment for Fatta.

Fatta was killed serving a search warrant in August 2004. The Sheriff's Office agreed to a $2 million settlement last year, days before a wrongful death lawsuit against the agency was set for trial.

When announcing the settlement, Sheriff Al Lamberti said the agency's failure to follow its own policies led to Fatta's death.

The key issue: the decision not to use the SWAT team, with officers trained to handle dangerous situations.

BSO has paid the Fatta family $200,000 as part of the settlement and agreed not to oppose a claims bill requiring the agency to pay the remainder.

"This was a settlement. Two parties had settled out of court and one said, 'Okay, I'll pay the money,' '' said Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat and the Senate sponsor of the bill. "(The Legislature) shouldn't be second-guessing the settlement."

Both bills are ready for the Senate floor. But they also must clear the House, and the Brody bill faces a particularly tough road.

The bill stalled in the House Civil Justice & Courts Policy Committee last month. The committee's last scheduled meeting ended without a vote on the bill, making it difficult for the bill to overcome procedural hurdles in the final days of the legislative session.

Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report. Breanne Gilpatrick can be reached at bgilpatrick@miamiherald.com.

Two compensation claims clear hurdles in Florida Senate 04/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 21, 2009 7:14pm]
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