The oft-criticized claims bill process could be upended under legislation proposed by a pair of Republican legislators.
Sen. Jason Brodeur and Rep. Fiona McFarland have filed bills that would likely eliminate the need for many claims bills by allowing local governments and state agencies to pay off legal settlements that exceed the state’s sovereign immunity limits without getting legislative approval.
SB 472 and HB 569 also double the current sovereign immunity limits from $200,000 per individual and $300,000 per incident, taking it to $400,000 per individual and $600,000 per incident. The bills allow that cap to be readjusted for inflation annually.
McFarland told Florida Politics Tuesday night that she already has heard from local government and public hospital lobbyists that oppose her legislation, which she understands.
“They are never going to be okay with a change to sovereign immunity? Like, they didn’t even get to neutral. They have to be against it. And I would expect that,” she said.
In contrast, the measures are supported by the Florida Justice Association, a statewide group that represents trial attorneys. Nine FJA lobbyists are registered to lobby on HB 569.
The state’s sovereign immunity limits place a cap on how much a family or individual can get paid even if a jury awards a much higher amount or a settlement is reached. In order to get paid an amount above the cap, the Legislature must approve a claims bill, which often is a contentious and heavily lobbied practice.
Many legislators have refused to sign off or vote for any claims bills, contending that the process was flawed and depended on lobbyists. But other legislative leaders have pushed ahead by saying the government owed it to those wronged to pay off the claims.
McFarland says she understands that her bill could increase the costs for governmental entities that are self-insured but that the system needs to be changed for the betterment of people injured by government agencies.
“If I could figure out a way to ease the burden on hospitals, I would, but it’s hard for me to look at any resident of Sarasota and say, ‘I’m sorry, if you slip and fall in the waiting room of Sarasota Memorial, it’s going to take a lobbyist, an act of Legislature, to make you financially whole.’ Or, ‘If you slip and fall at HCA hospital, Doctors Hospital Sarasota, then go ahead, just go through the jury process or go through a court process,'” McFarland said. “I can’t explain that to our residents.”
While McFarland and Brodeur’s bills are similar, they are not identical. McFarland’s bill, for example, would eliminate the practice of “home venue privilege” in civil lawsuits against the state — a move that could result in litigation being shifted out of Tallahassee.
McFarland said the change is necessary because the burden shouldn’t be on the people.
“I live in Southwest Florida and Tallahassee is five hours away. If the theme of the bill is making it easier for people to have standing and be able to sue governments, then this applies,” she said of he elimination of home rule.
Brodeur’s bill does not make the change.
McFarland’s bill also lowers attorneys fees from 25% of any judgment or settlement to 15%. Brodeur’s bill applies to claims that occurred on or after July 1, 2024, and McFarland’s bill applies to claims filed on or after Oct. 1, 2024.