Floridians injured by government struggle for compensation

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Some two dozen bills have been filed in this year’s Legislative Session to compensate people injured by the mistakes or negligence of government agencies: wrongly convicted prisoners, children abused by foster parents, people maimed or killed in accidents with police vehicles, and even a football player who died during practice.

Many have waited for years, though, and most will probably have to wait longer.

Florida law limits the compensation government agencies can pay in lawsuits to $200,000 regardless of the long-term costs of the injury and even if the agency agrees to pay more, unless the Legislature and governor approve a claims bill. But usually, only a few, high-profile cases get heard.

Lawyers and lobbyists for the victims say that’s because legislators are reluctant to force local governments in their own districts to pay the damages, or to take the costs out of the state budget, for a bill benefiting only one person.

“Claim bills are red-headed stepchildren for the Legislature,” said lawyer Lance Block, who handles many. “It’s a system that is more stacked against an injured claimant than any other.”

Legislators say the problem is the system is unfair.

“They’re often decided based on who the lobbyist is, not the validity of the claim,” said Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz, who opposes most claims bills. “It’s drive-by justice. It has become an enriching industry for lobbyists and lawyers.”

Block said an injured victim has little chance without advocates on his side. “That’s true of the process in general, not just claims bills.”

Both sides say the system needs reform, but the last attempt, three years ago, never reached a floor vote.

“It’s arbitrary,” said Tampa GOP Rep. Jamie Grant, who headed the committee proposing reforms. “People who were egregiously injured have to wait years and years for justice. We need to get the Legislature and politics out of the process.”

Claims bills filed this year represent cases up to 20 years old. Among them: In 2005, Jennifer Wohlgemuth, then 21, was hit by a Pasco County deputy who ran a red light during a high-speed chase without lights or siren, suffering such severe brain damage she can’t work, drive, speak or see normally and requires full-time care. A court awarded her $8.7 million, but she could collect only $100,000, the limit at the time. Claims bills for the rest have languished since 2012.

In 2001, 18-year-old Florida State University freshman football player Devaughn Darling died during practice from overexertion complicated by sickle-cell trait. The university agreed to a $2 million settlement of a lawsuit alleging trainers were negligent, but the family has collected only $200,000 despite repeated claims bills. Democrats Rep. Mia Jones of Jacksonville and Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa are pushing another this year.

In 1996, 34-year-old motorcyclist Ramiro Companioni suffered massive abdominal, hip, spinal, groin and head injuries when three Tampa city water trucks pulled out in front of him on a divided highway, causing permanent disability and $1.2 million in medical bills. Formerly a physically fit naval reservist, Companioni was awarded $18 million, but he has collected only $100,000, and Block said the city opposes claims bills for further compensation.