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Small Districts Wary Of Parkland Legal Fight

Jul 3, 2019
Originally published on July 3, 2019 8:35 am

By Jim Saunders / News Service of Florida

Rural Liberty County is about 500 miles away from Broward County. 

But school officials in Liberty County and other small Northwest Florida counties are watching as the state Supreme Court considers a case that will determine how much the Broward County School Board could be forced to pay to parents and victims in the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. 

A coalition of largely rural districts filed a friend-of-the-court brief Monday urging the Supreme Court to uphold a lower-court decision that would put a $300,000 limit on the Broward County School Board’s potential liability in lawsuits stemming from the shooting.

Attorneys for the coalition, the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium, wrote that a Supreme Court rejection of the strict limit could have a “devastating” financial impact on small districts if they ever face catastrophes such as school shootings.

The issue centers on the state’s sovereign-immunity law, which limits how much government agencies can be forced to pay in lawsuits, and how the liability limits should apply when multiple people are killed or injured in incidents. While the lower court said the Broward County School Board’s liability is capped at $300,000, attorneys for Parkland parents and victims say each plaintiff filing a claim should be able to receive $200,000 --- which could expose the school board to paying millions of dollars in damages.

“It is not only large school districts that face the threat of school shootings and other mass tragedies,” attorneys for the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium wrote in the brief Monday. “Small school districts, like large ones, also face this threat, on a daily basis. As potentially damaging as appellants’ (the Parkland parents and victims) proposed interpretation could be for larger school districts, the impact on small school districts … could have a much more devastating fiscal impact.”

The legal question in the case focuses largely on whether the mass shooting was a single “incident or occurrence” under state law. If it is considered a single incident or occurrence, the $300,000 overall limit would apply; but if the shooting of each person is considered a separate occurrence, plaintiffs could each receive as much as $200,000.

The Florida Justice Association, a statewide group of plaintiffs’ attorneys, filed a friend-of-the-court brief last month backing arguments by Parkland parents and victims that the $300,000 overall limit should be rejected. The association also argued that many school districts have made a “deliberate choice” to self-insure, which leads them to taking on risks.

“A school district’s choice to self-insure and retain the risk should not be rewarded with an interpretation of ‘incident or occurrence’ that allows it to escape the consequences of its decision,” the association’s brief said.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Aug. 28 in the dispute and in another case that involves the same legal issue. The other case alleges the Florida Department of Children and Families acted negligently before Palm Beach County resident Patrick Dell in 2010 fatally shot four of his stepchildren and injured one.

The fathers of Dell’s stepchildren filed a lawsuit against the Department of Children and Families, but the 4th District Court of Appeal said the shooting was a single incident, rather than separate occurrences. The appeals court’s decision in the DCF case was a basis for a circuit judge ruling that the Broward County School Board’s liability should be capped at $300,000 in lawsuits stemming from the Parkland shooting.

A brief filed last month by the Broward County School Board said 23 lawsuits had been filed alleging that the school district and employees were negligent in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, which killed 17 people and injured 17 others. The Supreme Court decision on the liability limits will likely affect how those cases move forward.

But the brief filed Monday by the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium said the decision could also affect the finances of districts such as Liberty County, which has only 1,304 students and four schools.

“The budget for preparing for risk-adverse events for school districts, especially small ones, has always been an issue of available funds,” the brief said. “Because school districts are not Walmart or a movie theater, and its inhabitants are required by law to be there, there is nothing a small school district can do to mitigate the risk by limiting the number of persons subject to the risk of collectively being in the same place at the same time and impacted by the same events.”