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A bill proposing changes to Florida’s sovereign-immunity laws sparks debate

The Florida Capitol building on Saturday, February 15, 2020, in Tallahassee.
Chris Day
Fresh Take Florida
The Florida Capitol building on Saturday, February 15, 2020, in Tallahassee.

Cities, counties, school districts and hospitals are trying to fend off a proposal that could lead to them paying more money in lawsuits over people getting injured.

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill (HB 569) that would revamp Florida’s sovereign-immunity laws, which are designed to limit liability of government agencies.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, would double caps on how much government agencies can be required to pay and make other changes in the laws.

Currently, the caps are $200,000 for payments to a single person and $300,000 if multiple people are involved in an incident, though the caps can be exceeded if lawmakers pass a special type of measure known as a “claim” bill. Under McFarland’s proposal, the caps would go to $400,000 and $600,000, respectively, and allow government agencies to settle lawsuits for higher amounts without needing to go through the lengthy and uncertain claim-bill process.

Also, the proposal would lead to annual increases in the caps based on the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation.

McFarland said she decided to pursue the legislation after hearing claim bills that “broke my heart.”

“As I sat in this committee and I heard terrible story after terrible story and I looked at the amount of money that they were getting in settlement, I thought that is not enough for a life that’s been ruined, frankly,” she said.

But the bill drew opposition from the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities, the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, Miami-Dade County, Broward County and the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium, which represents rural school districts in Northwest Florida.

Bob Harris, general counsel for the educational consortium, said the bill would lead to higher insurance costs, which are already a major expense for small school districts.

“We can’t afford this,” Harris said. “We just cannot afford this.”

Harris and Mark Delegal, general counsel of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, also said the prospect of more money could increase the number of cases that government agencies face.

“When there’s a bigger pot of money available, I use this phrase, when the honey pot is bigger, there will be more bears coming for it,” said Delegal, whose organization represents public, teaching and children’s hospitals.

Supporters of the proposal, however, said the caps have not changed in more than a decade amid steady inflation. Matthew Posgay, a Jacksonville attorney who spoke for the Florida Justice Association at the meeting, described the proposal as a “fair compromise.”

“It helps right wrongs done to citizens,” said Posgay, whose association represents plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The House panel voted 17-1 to approve the bill, with Rep. Patt Maney, R-Shalimar, dissenting. Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, has filed a similar Senate bill (SB 472).
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Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida