Justice! Brody, Dillon, other claims bills advance in House

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Listening to stories of “horrific” injuries, a House panel Friday approved a series of claims bills that included two top priorities of Senate President Mike Haridopolos and a proposal that could cost a Lee County hospital system more than $30 million, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

In all, the House Civil Justice Subcommittee approved 16 bills that could force state and local governments to pay claims because of issues such as police cars slamming into other vehicles, people suffering injuries in public hospitals and the wrongful imprisonment of a man for 27 years.

The highest-profile bill would lead to Broward County resident Eric Brody receiving a $10.75 million settlement for debilitating injuries he suffered in a 1998 car crash with a Broward sheriff’s deputy.

Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has championed Brody’s case, which spurred a long-running legal and lobbying battle that involved his family, the sheriff’s office and an insurer. The Senate approved a claims bill for Brody on the first day of this year’s legislative session, and the House panel Friday voted 11-1 for a similar measure (HB 445).

Eric Brody, who suffered brain damage in the crash, watched the subcommittee meeting from a wheelchair at the front of the room, with his parents and attorney nearby. The settlement would pay for round-the-clock care and therapy.

“It will put an end to 14 years of struggling, 14 years of fighting,” Brody’s father, Chuck, said after the vote.

The House version of the Brody bill, however, differs from the Senate version because it would place a $400,000 limit on how much of the money could go to legal and lobbying fees. But Lance Block, the family’s longtime attorney, downplayed the difference after the subcommittee vote.

“This case is about Eric, and the fees are secondary,” Block said.

The House panel also approved another Haridopolos priority to pay $1.35 million to William Dillon, who spent 27 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of killing a man in 1981 in Brevard County.

Rep. Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican who is sponsoring the House version (HB 141), said a DNA test in the case helped exonerate Dillon.

“I think this is ultimately about righting a wrong,” Crisafulli said before the subcommittee voted 11-0 to approve the bill.

Perhaps the most-controversial bill approved Friday would force the public Lee Memorial Health System to pay nearly $31 million related to the 1997 birth of a child who suffers from cerebral palsy. Mac Stipanovich, a lobbyist for Lee Memorial, said the proposal would be the largest claims bill in Florida history.

The parents of Aaron Edwards, now 14, successfully sued the hospital, arguing that the negligence of hospital employees during labor and delivery caused the cerebral palsy. The teen watched from a wheelchair as the subcommittee voted 12-1 to approve the bill (HB 965).

Mitzi Roden, who is Aaron Edwards’ mother, pleaded for lawmakers to approve the bill, saying the money would help get her son 24-hour-a-day care that he needs.

“I love my son more than life itself,” Roden said. “I do everything for him. I feed him, I bathe him, lift him.”

But Stipanovich called the proposed amount in the bill “off the charts” and disputed that Lee Memorial was at fault for the boy’s injuries.

“Lee Memorial did nothing wrong,” Stipanovich said. “We do not believe Lee Memorial and its staff violated the appropriate standard of care in this case.”

The claims bill process stems from the state’s sovereign-immunity laws, which shield government agencies from having to pay damages of more than $200,000 in lawsuits. To exceed that cap, injured people have to convince lawmakers to approve a claims bill directing higher payments.

It remains unclear how many — if any — claims bills will ultimately pass before the March 9 end of the legislative session. Claims bills played a role in the chaotic end of the 2011 session, as the House angered Haridopolos by not approving measures for Brody and Dillon.

In some cases, government agencies reach agreements to pay the amounts included in claims bills. But in other situations, the proposals can spur opposition from cities, counties and school boards.

The subcommittee rejected only one claims bill Friday, a proposal that called for the city of North Miami to pay $1.6 million in the 2007 traffic accident death of Omar Mieles. The 18-year-old Mieles was a passenger in a car that was hit by a police officer traveling at high speed.

The subcommittee voted 7-6 to defeat the bill (HB 985), at least in part because the driver of the car carrying Mieles was found 50 percent at fault in the crash.

House members went against local governments, however, on other cases. For example, they voted 12-0 to approve a $2.55 million claim (HB 969) against the city of Miami in the 2007 death of an autistic man, Kevin Colindres, who had been restrained by police officers.

Similarly, the panel voted 9-3 to approve a $2.58 million claim (HB 697) that stemmed from a 2004 accident in which a Sumter County school bus hit motorcyclist Donald Brown, causing injuries that required a leg amputation. Schools Superintendent Rick Shirley told the subcommittee that the claims bill could affect funding for student programs in the relatively rural Central Florida district.

Despite almost all the bills passing the subcommittee, some lawmakers made clear they are troubled by the claims-bill process, which often involves heavy lobbying on both sides of issues.

“I think many of us believe the claims system is broken,” said Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples.

Stipanovich, a longtime influential player in Republican politics, described the system as “sort of immunity” for government agencies instead of sovereign immunity.

But others, such as Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said claims bills are sometimes warranted. Rouson sponsored a bill (HB 1029) that calls for Haines City to pay $825,000 to a man who suffered serious injuries in a car accident with a police officer.

“I believe sovereign immunity should not be a carte-blanche credit card when the officer is in the wrong,” said Rouson, whose bill passed 7-6.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.