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County may pay for 1988 accident

The House Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would award $180,000 to a woman who was injured in a 1988 Hernando County traffic accident.

The ruling is not final. It must be approved by both the state House and Senate, County Attorney Bruce Snow said Thursday, the day after the committee approved the bill.

The county's insurance company, which has already paid some damages to the woman, Teresa Murdoch, is fighting the bill in court. The county would be liable for paying the $180,000 if the Legislature approves the bill.

The case stems from a March 29, 1988, accident on Mondon Hill Road. Murdoch, 18 at the time, collided with a county-owned road grader when she was passing a county dump truck. The grader, which was ahead of the truck, turned left in front of her as she was passing.

The bill Murdoch is seeking approval of is permitted under somewhat arcane legislation known as the "claims bill," Snow said. The law stems from the king of England's traditional right of "sovereign immunity," he said.

"According to the old common law, the king could do no wrong," Snow said.

In contemporary Florida, that means the judicial system cannot hold the county responsible for negligence payments of more than $100,000. Claims bills allow the Legislature to award more if there is proof that a person is owed an additional amount.

According to Murdoch's bill, that proof comes from her lawsuit against the county in 1992, when a jury awarded her $367,200. Murdoch was hospitalized for more than a month after the accident and suffered permanent injuries, seizures and memory loss, according to the bill.

Murdoch received $100,000 from the county's insurance company, plus some other money from an uninsured motorist case. The claims bill passed by the Judiciary Committee says that those sums do not mean that the county's liability ends at $100,000.

Lee Moffit, a Tampa attorney who represents Murdoch, urged passage of the bill, noting that the courts have not allowed jury verdicts such as Murdoch's to be reduced by the amount of collateral damages collected by an injured person.

Yates Rumbley, an Orlando attorney who represents Hernando County's insurer, urged committee members to reject the bill because Murdoch already has been compensated for most of her loss.

That is the same basis for the insurance company's court action, Snow said. It has filed a suit asking Circuit Judge John W. Booth to prevent Murdoch from seeking approval of the bill. Booth has heard some arguments in the case already, Snow said, and is planning to make a decision before the bill comes before the House.

Murdoch has since married and moved to Broward County, where she works with her husband at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store.