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  1. Florida Politics

Florida Legislature approves 11 claims bills totalling nearly $40 million

Published Mar. 12, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Rachel Hoffman was shot and killed when Tallahassee police officers lost track of her during a botched drug sting operation in 2008.

Eric Brody spends most of his life in a wheelchair after a speeding Broward County Sheriff's deputy plowed into his car 14 years ago.

Juan Carlos Rivera was stabbed to death in a 2009 schoolyard fight at Coral Gables High School.

Aaron Edwards has been a quadriplegic since his birth 14 years ago when a Lee County hospital allegedly mishandled his mother's care during delivery.

Those four cases are part of a long list of victims who were injured or killed by government employees and found relief this year in the Florida Legislature.

Because of the state's "sovereign immunity" law, most jury awards against the government in excess of $200,000 must be approved by lawmakers, even though the claim itself is paid by the government or facility involved.

The Legislature has historically dragged its collective feet to write a check to victims of police officers, public hospital workers or other state employees.

Not so this year. Lawmakers passed 11 so-called claims bills for government victims, approving nearly $40 million in relief.

Take the case of Brody, for example. The Sunrise man has been coming to Tallahassee with his parents for the past four years, trying to convince lawmakers to approve a multimillion-dollar jury award. Now 32, Brody was a college-bound teenager heading home from work when a speeding sheriff's deputy smashed into his car, leaving him with permanent brain damage.

After going home empty-handed several years in a row, Brody's family was relieved last week when lawmakers approved a $10.8 million payment.

"It's a big weight off my chest," said Chuck Brody, Eric's father.

But in order to keep the bill from failing yet another year, Brody's attorney and a lobbyist for the family had to agree to waive all fees — despite working for more than 14 years on the case.

That's part of the troubled inner politics of the claims bill process, which critics say has been infiltrated by lobbyists and high-priced lawyers.

"Our charge is to bring to bear uniform public policy, the same law for all, at all times," said Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, who voted against just about every claims bill and has tried to reform the process. "Instead, here you have one-off [exemptions]. It's the only area, in lobbying, where we permit contingency fees."

Lawmakers have spent the past few years condemning the arbitrary claims bill process, while not acting to change it (Hager's claims bill reform law went nowhere this year). Meanwhile, dozens of victims have had their claims denied or delayed.

This year, legislators were able to reach agreement on an appropriate formula for lobbying and attorney fees, capping them at $400,000. That agreement, along with the high-profile cases of Brody and a wrongfully incarcerated man named William Dillon, helped usher in a wave of claims bill approvals this year.

Three years after Rivera was stabbed to death at Coral Gables High School, his family will be able to collect the remaining $1.2 million of a settlement with the Miami-Dade School Board. His claims bill passed the House on a 109-9 vote.

Hoffman's case struck a particularly strong chord among lawmakers, as the 23-year-old Florida State University graduate was murdered less than 30 minutes away from the state Capitol. The Clearwater native had been arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana, and agreed to become a police informant to lessen her punishment. In 2008, Tallahassee police officers sent her out on an undercover mission to purchase drugs and a gun from suspected criminals.

Her police handlers lost track of her during the operation, and the targets of the sting gunned her down. A grand jury found the police department negligent, and the city agreed to a $2.6 million settlement with Hoffman's family.

"Despite her lack of experience and training, she was sent alone to purchase 1,500 Ecstasy pills, two-and-a-half ounces of cocaine and a gun for $13,000," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who sponsored the claims bill. "All indications were that this was going to be a robbery, not a drug deal."

On the final day of the session, lawmakers approved a claims bill authorizing the city to pay the bulk of the settlement — $2.4 million — to Hoffman's parents.

But the spurt of legislative generosity only went so far. Dozens of victims who either had no lobbyists or could not find advocates in the Legislature saw their claims bills fail. Many were maimed or killed due to negligence by bus drivers, speeding police, hospital staff or employees at state agencies.

Three years after a jury awarded $8.7 million to a Pasco County woman left brain-damaged after a crash with a speeding police officer, lawmakers opted not to approve a full payout.

A claims bill for Jennifer Wohlgemuth was among several that died before facing a full vote in the final hours of the session. Wohlgemuth did not have a lobbyist.

In at least one case, the most successful advocate for a claims bill approval was the victim himself.

Edwards, the 14-year-old who was brain-damaged allegedly because of hospital neglect, became the new face of Florida's arduous claims bill process this year. Though he cannot speak clearly or walk, the bright-eyed teenager with spiky hair captured the hearts of many lawmakers during the course of the session. During a crucial vote that would decide the fate of his multimillion-dollar claims bill, he used a computer-generated voice system to make his pitch to lawmakers:

"I don't know what religion you are," he said. "But I want you to ask yourself, 'What would God do?' "

On a 97-14 vote, lawmakers approved one of the largest claims bills in state history, providing Edwards $15 million for long-term care.

Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com

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