Compensation claims made against Florida governments protected by sovereign immunity cannot top $200,000 total for all victims, even in a mass shootings like the 2018 Parkland massacre, the Supreme Court of Florida held Thursday.
The court actually decided the issue through another case Thursday that dated back to 2010. The court then dismissed another claim Thursday brought by parents of several of the victims of the 2018 Parkland mass shooting.
The decisive case came out of Riviera Beach. Patrick Dell, an estranged husband, shot his wife and five of her children, killing all of them except one child, who survived. Dell then committed suicide.
The families of the victims in that case wound up being represented through two different lawsuits seeking damages. They each charged that the Department of Children and Families was negligent because Dell had openly threatened to kill his wife and the children a few months earlier, but DCF dismissed that threat as not dangerous.
In the claim that wound its way to the Supreme Court, the lawyers challenged Florida tradition of awarding no more than $200,000 in total damages for multiple victims of the same act. Among the arguments was that there were multiple acts involved in Dell’s crime spree.
Florida law caps normal claims at $100,000 per individual and $200,000 per occurrence or incident. Additional damages can be awarded through acts of the Legislature.
Barnett v. State Department of Financial Services sought to have the $200,000 cap apply to each case.
In Thursday’s opinion, the Florida High Court said no, thereby upholding the opinion of the Fourth District Court of Appeals.
The opinion says that the $200,000 cap is clear in Florida law, as an aggregate total for all victims.
The court rejected the argument that “same incident or occurrence” cited in Florida law could be interpreted as multiple activities during the same chain of criminal events.
“To the extent that the phrase ‘incident or occurrence’ is ambiguous and could reasonably be read as referring either to the overall incident or to the smaller segments of time and action that constitute the individual crimes against each separate victim, this would lead us to the substantive rules of statutory construction that statutes altering the common law ‘are narrowly construed’ and that ‘[w]aivers of sovereign immunity must be construed narrowly in favor of the government,” Thursday’s opinion reads.
“In sum, the claims stemming from the mass shooting of Dell’s victims arose from the same incident or occurrence and are therefore subject to the $200,000 aggregate cap for damages paid by the State, its agencies, or subdivisions,” the opinion concludes.
The state, specifically Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, was represented by Daniel R. Russell, William D. Hall, III, Marc W. Dunbar, and Peter M. Dunbar of Dean Mead & Dunbar of Tallahassee.
The plaintiffs, Michael Barnett and Leroy Nelson, Jr., represented by Vincent E. Miller of Delray Beach, won one point. The state had contended that “incident or occurrence” referred to the decision by DCF to not pursue further protective actions. The Supreme Court said no; there could be multiple incidents or occurrences that arise from a single government decision.
The opinion was unanimous among the five justices who participated, Chief Justice Charles Canady, Justice Ricky Polston, Justice Jorge Labarga, Justice Alan Lawson, and Justice Carlos Muñiz. Justice John Couriel and Justice Jamie Grosshans did not participate.
Consequently, that closed the door on a similar claim brought Fred Guttenberg and others arising from the Feb. 14, 2018, mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Nikolas Cruz awaits trial on charges that he murdered 17 people and wounded 17 others in a mass shooting there.
The Supreme Court dismissed the Parkland families’ claim, brought against the Broward County School Board, seeking compensation judgments in excess of the $200,000 cap for the multiple victims in that crime.
“This case is controlled by our recent decision in Barnett v. State Department of Financial Services,” the Supreme Court declared.
The Guttenberg opinion provided the same lineup among the Justices.