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Change Sovereign Immunity Law That Leaves Floridians Suffering

Jeffrey R. Davis

The Sun-Sentinel

Op Ed

Link to article.

For years, Florida has protected the purse, not the people.

Luckily, the Legislature gets a chance to fix that this session by amending the state’s sovereign immunity law.

Lawmakers had a chance to do so in the last legislative session, too, and didn’t. But at least the bill got a hearing.

Not everyone injured by the government gets that far.

Sovereign immunity is the centuries-old legal doctrine that the king, as a divine being, can do no legal wrong. Because a king can do no wrong, he cannot be sued. If the king is sued, it’s only because he has permitted you to do so. And if you by some chance win, it is the king who decides how much money he will give you from his treasury.

Florida doesn’t have royalty. It does have towns, school districts, sheriffs, public hospitals, cities, special districts; all of which enjoy a limited immunity from legal judgments stemming from this doctrine.

When an unarmed bicyclist was shot in the back by a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy; when Jacksonville budget cuts led to a teen being paralyzed by a tree limb; and when Dania police ignored a man’s alibi and sent him to prison for life; it was sovereign immunity protecting the finances of the sheriff, the city and the state’s legal system.

Florida’s current sovereign immunity law caps damages at no more than $300,000 per incident. Any amount more than that has to be approved by the Florida Legislature in what is known as a claims bill.

That is why the Broward County School District could initially offer, with a straight face, the equivalent of $8,832 each to the families of 17 dead children and another 17 wounded in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. That would have been their share of a $300,000 single-incident cap.

A House bill filed by state Rep. Mike Beltran would raise the caps to $2.5 million for an individual and $5 million per incident. It would give municipalities more freedom to settle claims without Tallahassee’s approval.

And it has been met with furious opposition.

“We call it the ‘pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’ syndrome,” said one critic at a subcommittee hearing. Increase the pot of gold, he predicted, and small towns and cash-strapped school districts will be swamped, even bankrupted by a rush of claims.

A staff analysis of the bill offered up this jump-scare: Cities might cut back on services if they have to pay claims.

City hall is not going to turn off the lights. Sheriffs are not going to park the cruisers.

They might, however, be slightly more motivated to fix the long-broken elevator, update use-of-force training or cut rotting tree limbs. And they have the option of doing what doctors, homeowners and anyone who drives a car does: Buy insurance.

The same critics opposing raising the damages cap also insist that the current process for securing a larger judgment — filing a claims bill and hoping lawmakers pass it — is working just fine.

It isn’t. A claims bill is not quite the same as spending years on a bent knee with a tin cup. But it makes beggars out of victims all the same.

A jury found in 2016 that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office owed Dontrelle Stephens $22.5 million. A deputy had pulled over the bicycling Stephens, and four seconds later shot the 20-year-old in the spine.

Sovereign immunity shielded the sheriff’s office from paying anything beyond the caps. In Tallahassee, its lobbyists worked overtime to portray Stephens as a drug dealer not worthy of millions of dollars. By the time a claims bill passed in 2020, Stephens was homeless. Lawmakers approved only a fraction of the jury award, $6 million. Stephens died the next year from complications of paralysis.

Years-long waits are the norm, not the exception, as families and survivors return to Tallahassee again and again to plead their case. It took 14 years for lawmakers to award the parents of a child killed at his middle school $360,000 of a $560,000 settlement with the Palm beach County school district.

In what former State Sen. Arthenia Joyner described as “an annual pilgrimage to beseech the Florida Legislature for justice,” it took more than a decade before the Legislature approved a $1.8 million settlement between Florida State University and the family of linebacker Devaughn Darling, who died during practice.

People filing claims bills need luck as well as patience: In 2013 and 2014, then-Senate President Don Gaetz said he did not think claims bills were handled fairly. So he simply stopped them all.

Beltran’s bill will not erase an arbitrary system shot through with casual cruelty. Only eliminating the state’s sovereign immunity law would do that. At least 17 states have already done so. They run the political gamut, from deep blue California to bright red Arkansas.

Florida isn’t likely to follow their lead. But the bill gives lawmakers a chance to offer relief, and they should seize it. Because a law that leaves its citizens to suffer should not be anyone’s idea of a crowning legislative achievement.

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