|Rep. Bill Hager|
We told you last week about a bill making its way through the state Legislature to compensate Eric Brody, who was 18 when he was left brain damaged by a car accident with a speeding off-duty Broward Sheriff's deputy (more details here
). The House Civil Justice Subcommittee approved the bill Friday, but not before Hager, a Republican representing Boca Raton, voted against it and several other representatives complained about the claims system in general.
The subcommittee was set to hear 17 claims bills Friday. Hager pointed out early in the hearing that he wasn't going to vote for any of them.
"I voted consistently 'no' on claim bills across the board, and I do so because I believe we are a nation of laws and not of men. I believe this one-off approach makes us a nation of men and not laws. Our charge is to bring to bear uniform public policy -- the same law for all, at all times," Hager said. "If we don't like sovereign immunity; I believe we have a responsibility to change the law."
The "sovereign immunity" Hager is referring to is a policy that caps civil suits against state agencies at $200,000. Anything larger than that requires legislative approval from the Florida House and Senate, but bills can be stalled for years. In many cases, the awards given by the state are a small fraction of the amount decided upon in court.
The Brody family was awarded more than $30 million by a jury. The bill approved Friday would give them less than $10.8 million. Davie Democrat Marty Kiar pointed out that the bill they were debating at the time was for a court ruling of $6 million. The bill eventually called for an award of $940,000 instead, to the two children of a single mother killed by brain trauma she suffered on a Miami-Dade bus.
"It is very upsetting that the only way at times to get some of these claims bills passed is when the parties are forced to take a very, very, very small settlement," Kiar said. "I think it's very unfair. I think it's wrong."
Miami Beach Rep. Richard Steinberg took issue with Hager's interpretation.
"Yes, there's sovereign immunity, but the law also provides for this process. So it's not that we're doing something that is unlawful or not contemplated -- when the state created sovereign immunity, they also created a relief valve understanding that there will be circumstances that will come and arise that will justify the waiver of the cap," Steinberg said. "Those who are concerned about runaway amounts being awarded in a government sector, it doesn't happen. This is kind of the check to prevent that from happening.
"And frankly the process of and the fear that unless you have a settled amount, it wont go through the legislature forces people to take less than perhaps even less than the legislature would agree to, at times, if it was to be able to actually have a fair hearing here."
While there was a technical amendment added Friday to make the House bill match the one the Senate passed last month, the bill should come before the House Judiciary Committee soon. There's also a video of Friday's hearing
on the Florida House website, if you've got three hours to spare and far more patience than anyone else on the internet.