A South Florida Republican has proposed placing new restrictions on claims bills, limiting which lawmakers can file the bills and barring lobbyists from collecting contingency fees for getting the measures passed, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.
Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, filed a bill (HB 1113) last week that also would prevent government agencies from taking a legal step known as “assigning” claims instead of paying amounts approved by lawmakers. Such an assignment is a key issue in perhaps the most-contentious claims bill for 2012 — a fight about compensating Eric Brody for debilitating injuries he suffered in a car crash with a Broward County sheriff’s officer.
Hager said Tuesday his bill would not take effect until July 1 if passed, which means it would not affect the Brody case or other claims bills during the 2012 session. But as a first-term lawmaker, he said he was “troubled” by what he saw in a process that involves the Legislature deciding whether agencies across the state should pay out millions of dollars in liability cases.
“Just from a process standpoint, I’m concerned now that we have big money involved in terms of contingency fees,” Hager said. “We have a jury of 160 people (in the Legislature) deciding these things. I just think it is an untoward process.”
Hager’s proposal comes as Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, makes a priority of passing two high-profile claims bills during the 2012 session. Haridopolos has championed compensating Brody and William Dillon, who served 27 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder.
The Brody case, in particular, has touched off a lobbying fight as an insurer for the Broward sheriff’s office tries to fend off the possibility of having to pay more than $15 million to the brain-injured man.
Claims bills stem from the state’s sovereign-immunity laws, which typically limit the liability of government agencies to $200,000. To exceed that cap, lawmakers must approve claims bills directing that larger amounts of money get paid to injured people.
The bills deal with varying circumstances, ranging from a proposal to provide $1.35 million to the wrongfully imprisoned Dillon to a proposal to require Lee Memorial Health System to pay more than $30 million to the family of Aaron Edwards, a boy who is totally disabled because of injuries suffered at birth.
“It’s a conservative measure of what is a phenomenal amount of damage to a human life,” Chris Searcy, an attorney for the Edwards family, said recently about the amount sought in the claims bill.
But Hager, a former Iowa insurance commissioner, said he opposed all claims bills that came up for votes during the 2011 session and is trying to increase “accountability” in the process.
As an example, Hager’s proposal would only allow lawmakers to file claims bills that affect counties in their districts. In the past, claims bills have often been filed by lawmakers who do not represent the government agencies that would have to pay the damages.
“Who’s going to be more concerned about the Palm Beach County School Board? A member of the Palm Beach County delegation, or a legislator from Jacksonville?” Hager asked.
Also, Hager said lobbyists should not get paid contingency fees to try to pass claims bills, a prohibition that already applies to lobbyists in other issues before the Legislature. He said contingency fees can create incentives that “raise questions about the whole process.”
Hager’s proposal to prevent government agencies from assigning claims, meanwhile, delves into a controversy that shadows the Brody case.
Lance Block, an attorney for Brody, has said that if a claims bill passes, the Broward sheriff’s office would assign the claim to the Brody family. That would effectively shield the Broward sheriff’s office — and county taxpayers — from the possibility of getting hit with a tab for more than $15 million.
After the claim is assigned, the Brody family would file a “bad-faith” lawsuit against an insurer for the sheriff’s office. Block contends that the insurer, known as Ranger Insurance Co. at the time of Brody’s accident, failed to properly settle the case before trial.
If a bad-faith case is ultimately successful, it could cost Ranger’s successor company millions of extra dollars. Pete Antonacci, a lobbyist for the insurer, said it has been willing to settle the case for $8.5 million but has been rebuffed.
Hager, however, said his proposal is not targeted at the Brody case.
“My bill is not an attack on the Brody situation,” he said. “It isn’t even designed to address the Brody situation.”