Florida Legislature Plays Judge And Jury In Claims Bill Process

Mar 7, 2012

“Thank you very much and I apologize that this has happened,” Governor Rick Scott told William Dillon as he signed a bill giving Dillon more than a million dollars.

Dillon spent 27 years in prison for a murder in Brevard County. He was set free in 2008 after DNA testing showed he wasn’t the killer.

It took more than three and a half years for the Legislature to pass a bill compensating Dillon.

“It doesn’t give me back what was taken from me," Dillon said. "But at the same time, it’s such a joy to be here because my life was gone.”

For some, the wait is much longer.

The Need For Reform

Dozens of claims bills wind up before the Legislature each year.

Most of the time, injured parties get their day in court. But when the defendant is a state or local government employee, damages are limited by law. That means a victim’s only recourse is to ask the Legislature for help.

Most claims bills die during the Legislative session without a committee hearing. For some, the system takes a really long time to work.

Eric Brody was a senior in high school when a speeding Broward County deputy crashed into his car. That was 14 years ago, and his family is still waiting for compensation.

The crash left Brody with brain damage and permanent injuries. For years, his family has asked the Legislature to approve a claim worth more than $10 million. If they don't get the money, his father Charles wondered, "Who’s going to fund his therapies, who’s going to fund his life, what’s going to happen to him?”

Critics say Eric Brody’s case shows what’s wrong with Florida’s claims bill process.

Severely injured people are often forced to hire lobbyists to get a claims bill filed. The victims may wait years for justice and have no recourse if their claim isn’t approved.

How It Works

Here’s how the claims process works.

Someone who’s been harmed by a state or local government agency is automatically eligible for up to $200-thousand in compensation.

Victims who need more money must find a lawmaker to file a claims bill on their behalf. It must be approved by committees in the House and Senate. Then, it has to pass the entire House and Senate and be signed by the governor.

Representative John Wood of Haines City said the current process is unworkable and unfair. “Most states rely heavily on their courts to adjudicate claims against the state," Wood said. "We need to adopt a process that removes the Legislature from being judge and jury on these claims.”

Wood sees a better way – insurance for government.

“If a government entity has an adequate amount of insurance, the judgment can be paid and never presented to us for consideration," Wood told lawmakers. "The remedy for these claims against local government should be resolved in the impacted local community and not Tallahassee.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Ft. Walton Beach said the current process is sometimes unfair in the other direction – too quick to reward certain victims.

Florida taxpayers have spent more than $150-million over the last decade to pay for wrongful incarcerations, crash injuries, and deaths.

Gaetz is opposed to a $2.4 million claims bill for the parents of Rachel Hoffman, even though the city of Tallahassee agreed to pay for it. Hoffman was a Tallahassee police informant who was killed during a drug sting in 2008.

“No one who voted to approve this settlement is digging into their pocket," Gaetz said on the House floor. "They’re taking out of the pocket of the taxpayers of the city of Tallahassee, and so I am not as persuaded that this was settled without a trial.”

The courts say government entities need to have this immunity to protect the public treasury and because it would be disruptive for the state to constantly be sued.

On one hand, no one seems happy with the current system. On the other hand, there’s been no big effort to change it.

Dozens of claims bills were filed in Tallahassee this year. One of them seeks to reform the claims bill process, but it was never taken up for consideration.