1. Florida Politics

Steve Bousquet: Victims of negligence are left in the lurch

Published Apr. 21, 2014

Justice delayed is justice denied in Tallahassee.

Dozens of victims of gross negligence by the state, cities and counties will have to wait for justice at least one more year because the 2014 session will end without the Legislature doing its job.

When someone is abused, maimed or killed at the hands of government, he or she can't collect more than $200,000 in damages, even when a jury awards more money or when the government admits wrongdoing. The doctrine of sovereign immunity is designed to protect governments — and taxpayers — from damage awards that could bankrupt them.

So it's the Legislature's job to consider the facts and pass claims bills to compensate victims and their families. Some cases before them:

• Marcus Button suffered brain damage and lost his ability to walk and the partial use of three senses when a negligent Pasco County school bus driver refused to yield the right of way. A court ordered the school district to pay $1.6 million to him and his family. It has paid $200,000. Button was 16 when the crash occurred eight years ago.

• Aubrey Stewart of Jacksonville was 15 when a rotting tree limb fell on him three years ago, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down after several residents had asked the city to cut down the tree. The city has agreed to pay $3.3 million to compensate the Stewart family.

• Devaughn Darling, a Florida State football player, collapsed and died during preseason drills in 2001. FSU has agreed to pay $2 million to the Darling family. It has paid $200,000.

Legislative leaders say the claims bill system is broken, but they can't agree on how to fix things, making this a vivid and sad illustration that what really matters in Tallahassee is what lawmakers don't do, not what they do.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is the Capitol's most influential critic of the system, which he says is poisoned by arbitrariness and lobbyist influence.

"The claims bill process as it has occurred depends more on who the lobbyist is or how hard the biscuits were that morning than as a thoughtful, deliberate approach on the merits," Gaetz said.

Gaetz said he has asked for thoughtful ideas on how to fix the system, but no one has offered any. Lobbyists for claimants and their families have suggested some changes, such as a standing joint House-Senate committee whose only job is to consider claims bills, and to limit legislative review to cases that have been decided by juries or where government has admitted its wrongdoing and is willing to pay damages.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, is the sponsor of the Stewart family's claims bill, in which the Jacksonville City Council has called on the Legislature to approve the family's claim. But SB 30 hasn't received a single hearing, and it won't before the session ends May 2.

"I think a claims bill is an appropriate relief valve when there's clear liability or there's real injury, and the government, without question, is at fault," Bradley said.

When Bradley visited the Stewart family, he was shocked to discover that the stump of the tree that maimed Aubrey is there as a constant reminder of the horrible pain that it has caused a family.

"Mind-boggling," Bradley said.

Steve Bousquet can be reac hed at