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Politics / Issues

Florida Legislature Plays Judge and Jury in Deciding Claims

Eric Brody's wheelchair.jpg
Eric Brody's wheelchair. He's been waiting 10 years for compensation after a police officer wrecked into his car, paralyzing him.

Imagine you’re driving home from work, and you’re hit by a reckless driver. You’d want to sue, right?

But if the person that injured you is a government employee in Florida, forget going to court. You’ll have to petition the Florida Legislature for help.

That’s what William Dillon did.  Dillon spent 27 years in prison for a murder in Brevard County. He was set free in 2008 after DNA testing showed he wasn’t the killer.

It took more than three and a half years for the Legislature to pass a bill compensating Dillon.

“It doesn’t give me back what was taken from me,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s such a joy to be here, because my life was gone.”

For some, the wait is much longer.

Eric Brody was a senior in high school when a speeding Broward County deputy crashed into his car. That was 14 years ago – and his family is still waiting for compensation.

The crash left Brody with brain damage and permanent injuries. For years, his family has asked the Legislature to approve a claim worth more than $10 million.

His father Charles wonders what will happen if they don’t get the money.

“Who’s going to fund his therapies, who’s going to fund his life, what’s going to happen to him?” Brody said.

Critics say that Eric Brody’s case shows what’s wrong with Florida’s claims bill process.

Severely-injured people are often forced to hire lobbyists to get a claims bill filed. The victims may wait years for justice and have no recourse if their claim isn’t approved.

So, here’s how the claims process works. Someone who’s been harmed by a state or local government agency is automatically eligible for up to $200-thousand in compensation.

Victims who need more must find a lawmaker to file a claims bill on their behalf. It must be approved by committees in the House and Senate, and then the entire House, Senate and finally, the Governor.

Representative John Wood of Haines City says the current process is unworkable and unfair.

“Most states rely heavily on their courts to adjudicate claims against the state,” Wood said.

“We need to adopt a process that removes the Legislature from being judge and jury on these claims.”

Wood says there’s a better way – insurance for government.

“If a government entity has an adequate amount of insurance, the judgment can be paid and never presented to us for consideration,” he said.

“The remedy for these claims against local government should be resolved in the impacted local community and not Tallahassee.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Ft. Walton Beach says the current process is sometimes unfair in the other direction – too quick to reward certain victims.

Florida taxpayers have spent more than $150-million over the last decade to pay for wrongful incarcerations, crash injuries, and deaths.

Gaetz is opposed to a $2.4 million claims bill for the parents of Rachel Hoffman. She’s a murdered police informant, killed during a Tallahassee drug sting in 2008.
Gaetz opposes the Hoffman claim, even though the city agreed to pay it.

“No one who voted to approve this settlement is digging into their pocket. They’re taking out of the pocket of the taxpayers of the city of Tallahassee,” Gaetz said.

The courts say government entities need to have this immunity to protect the public treasury, and because it would be disruptive for the state to constantly be sued.

On one hand, no one seems happy with the current system. On the other hand, there’s been no big effort to change it.

Dozens of claims bills were filed in Tallahassee this year. One of them seeks to reform the claims bill process……but it was never taken up for consideration.