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In tough budget year, families awaiting claims from state may have to wait even longer

TALLAHASSEE — Eric Brody was just about to graduate high school in 1998 when a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy crashed into his car, leaving him paralyzed and severely brain damaged.

The Brodys are among about 20 families this year hoping to collect more than $55.7 million from the state and local governments for being injured, disfigured or killed through the actions of government employees.

But to receive the money, they need a special act of the Legislature. And in a year when deep cuts in state spending will force legislators to do some painful prioritizing, that's likely to make many of them victims all over again.

"It breaks my heart that we can't settle these claims," said Rep. Julio Robaina, a Miami Republican, who serves on the General Government & Health Care Appropriations Council. "But, unfortunately, the money's just not there. This is another part of the tough economy that people never even think about."

Under Florida's Constitution, government entities have "sovereign immunity," which virtually shields them from liability by capping payments to those hurt or killed because of government actions at $200,000.

If a court order or a government settlement calls for a payment above that amount, the Legislature must pass a so-called "claims bill'' before the money can be paid.

Over the past two years, legislators have passed nearly two dozen such bills, worth more than $50.9 million.

Many of the families hoping to collect this session have been waiting for years to be compensated for their lost lives and loved ones — sometimes continuing to wait long after judgments and settlements in their favor.

A jury awarded Brody $30.76 million in 2005 for the injuries he suffered more than a decade ago as an 18-year-old. And Rep. Rachel Burgin, a Brandon Republican, and Sen. Ken Pruitt, a Port St. Lucie Republican, are sponsoring the legislation the family needs to receive the money.

Brody was turning left into his Sunrise subdivision after finishing his shift at the Sports Authority at Sawgrass Mills mall when a BSO deputy on his way to work crossed two lanes of traffic and slammed into the passenger side of Brody's car.

During the trial, experts concluded the deputy was driving between 60 and 70 mph when he struck Brody's car.

Before the accident, Brody was a disc jockey for the Piper High School radio station and had been accepted to the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida, where he planned to study business and broadcast journalism.

Brody, now 29, struggles to speak at all and will need constant care for the rest of his life.

"We had an 18-year-old kid that was set to graduate high school, get a college degree," said Eric's father, Charles Brody, during a recent trip to Tallahassee. "One crash and, boom, that's all eliminated. . . . His friends have graduated, they're married, they're having families. He has nothing."

Even as the state's budget gap forces lawmakers to consider slashing education and health care spending, legislators say not all of the compensation claims are lost causes.

For example, in some cases, local governments have already set aside the money and simply need the Legislature to sign off on the payment.

And in Brody's case, a provision in the proposed claims bill states that the family will not attempt to collect directly from BSO. Instead, the family will agree to wait for the law enforcement agency to pursue a lawsuit against its insurance company that alleges the company should have settled the Brody's case sooner.

But in many cases, even the lawmakers sponsoring the compensation bills have told families not to expect much this year.

"I think people deserve to be compensated; they have suffered," said Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who is sponsoring claims bills on behalf of three families. "But we're going to have to prioritize."

Other lawmakers say it's not fair to compound a family's pain.

"Yes, we're going through a very difficult time," Burgin said. "But imagine the family, who is also going through a very difficult time."

And for those like Lee Crandall, a former University of Miami professor who will mark the 10th anniversary of his wife's death on June 20, the wait has been almost painful as the loss itself.

Sherrill Lynn Aversa was killed during a visit to Tampa nearly 10 years ago years ago when a 12-foot ladder fell from a Florida Department of Transportation truck causing another car to swerve into her 1995 Toyota Camry.

The state ultimately settled the case for nearly $797,500.

"It's just not an honorable thing to do," said Crandall, who is now works at Clemson University in South Carolina. "If you have a debt, you pay it. To me that's the most offensive part of the whole thing."

Breanne Gilpatrick can be reached at bgilpatrick@miamiherald.com

In tough budget year, families awaiting claims from state may have to wait even longer 03/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009 9:13pm]
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