Once again, senators are raising the cap within legislation regarding claims against the government.
A measure (SB 974), carried by Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters, would raise the values of claims before claimants must go to the Legislature to waive sovereign immunity, which prevents the government from paying claims without its consent. With an amendment approved during the Senate Community Affairs Committee’s meeting on Tuesday, senators pushed the values higher, reversing the Senate’s previous decision to lower them.
“Governments do wrong sometimes,” Gruters told the committee. “The question is, what should be the compensation of those wrongs?”
The cap would rise from $200,000 to $1 million per individual and $300,000 to $3 million per accident. Every 10 years, beginning Jan. 1, 2023, the Department of Financial Services would be asked to automatically adjust the caps according to the consumer price index (CPI).
At the bill’s previous committee stop, Senators set the bill’s marks at $300,000 per person and $400,000 per accident.
Since 2010, Florida law has capped normal claims against a government entity at $200,000 per person and $300,000 per accident. Claims bills in the Legislature can award additional damages.
Every year, the Legislature considers scores of claims bills that, if approved, would clear proper payment to those seeking compensation for injuries or losses caused by the negligence or error of a public office or agency. Proponents hope the measure will reduce the number of times Floridians would have to come to lawmakers to plead their case to receive reparations for transgressions committed against them by the government.
This year, lawmakers are considering bills to pay a man wrongly incarcerated for 37 years, a Monticello nurse severely injured in a head-on crash with a state employee, and a mother whose three children were maimed in a highway pileup caused by a state trooper, among many others.
Some bills are advancing. Others stalled in one (or both) chambers, including one to pay $25 million to the families and victims of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which had been federally settled.
Had that not occurred and the Legislature again let a claims bill delay payment to the victims, the 34-plus claimants and their families would have to rely on just $300,000.
Representatives from the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties said they support reviewing sovereign immunity caps. However, as Senators moved to revise the bill’s language with the higher values, local government officials argued the new caps would bring a drastic change, increasing the amount that is on the line tenfold.
“Increase that five to 10 times would be millions and billions of dollars in our budget this coming year that would be taken away from vital services to residents or necessitate a millage increase, which I’ve always opposed,” Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer testified to the committee.
Reaching a balance between the needs of local governments and bringing justice for victims has been an ongoing negotiation, Gruters said. The $1 million and $3 million marks could still change.
George Gough, whose 14-year-old son, Jaime, was stabbed to death, shared with the committee his story of seeking approval for the Miami-Dade School Board to pay him the $1.7 million the board had agreed to pay in the settlement. It took three attempts for the Goughs to get their claims bill through the Legislature, meaning repeated trips from Miami to Tallahassee and constantly reliving their son’s death.
“You send your kids to school, and the school is like a second home, and you get a call that your kids are murdered in school. That is something that is very hard to go through, to live,” Gough told Florida Politics. “I would like to see this bill pass (to) where we can help victims in a better way.”
The Senate Community Affairs Committee approved Gruters’ bill 6-3, with opposition from some Republicans. The bill next heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, its final committee stop before the bill is ready for the full Senate’s consideration.
Clearwater Republican Sen. Ed Hooper was among those who voted against the bill, arguing a $3 million payout could be devastating to a city.
Meanwhile, Lighthouse Point Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer criticized the Florida League of Cities and Florida Association of Counties for pushing back against the elevated sovereign immunity caps but not moving as vigorously against previous legislative efforts like preemption bills. Both organizations accepted concessions on a recent measure over local ordinances despite opposition from Democrats.
“It’s kind of offensive to me to see it come up here and fight so on this to stop people like Mr. Gough from getting what they deserve,” Farmer said, “and then you roll over a bill that is horrible for your city.”
Currently, the House bill (HB 985), carried by Lithia Republican Rep. Mike Beltran, includes a $1 million per victim cap now in the Senate bill, but it does not have a total cap per accident. Beltran’s bill awaits a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, its final House committee stop.
Jesse Scheckner of Florida Politics contributed to this report.