For the first time in two years, Florida lawmakers are preparing to award more than $13 million to Floridians who have been injured by local governments and medical entities. The claims bill process is one of the most contentious issues in the legislature. But change is hard to come by and many victims of government injuries are left holding the bills.
Update 4/29/15: The Florida Senate has approved 14 claims bills. The measures now go to Governor Rick Scott for approval.
Republican Representative John Wood is a staunch critic of Florida’s claims bill process.
“A joke is out there, and I mean no disrespect… the joke is, you’re getting ready to have a wreck and there’s a school bus and a waste management truck….which one do you want to hit you?” He said.
That analogy hits close to reality. Six years ago, Mark Sawicki of Tallahassee was biking on his way to work Florida State University, where he is an engineer. He was stopped at an intersection waiting to cross the street, when he was run over by a City of Tallahassee waste management truck making a right hand turn. Sawicki and his wife sued the City of Tallahassee for injuries, and they were awarded $900,000. The city paid out $200,000, and to get the rest, the Sawicki’s had to appeal to the legislature due to state-mandated caps on how much governments can pay out when they’re sued:
“You’ve got brain damaged people accepting $700,000. If it were a fed-ex truck instead of a city truck, that person would be receiving millions of dollars with an injury that serious, says Tallahassee attorney Lance Block.
He specializes in claims bills and is representing nearly half of the 14 claims before the legislature this year, excluding the Sawicki case. Block believes the Florida legislature shouldn’t be in the business of addressing claims, and says it should be up to the courts to decide who gets what.
“Government has a tremendous advantage and local governments want to keep the system the way it is, because it's so much more difficult for claimants to get their bills through and it gives local governments the advantage in negotiating settlements that are peanuts compared to what the injuries are.”
“We are about to vote on one of the most perverted systems we administer in the legislature. It’s called the claims process," says Republican Representative Bill Hager, a claims bill critic.
Hager doesn't like the idea of of taxpayer dollars going to issues like medical malpractice, and payments for attorney’s and lobbyists who advocate for the bills.
“$3.2 million, out the door, sacred taxpayer dollars, to the lobbyists. Secondly, about a quarter of the cases here are medical malpractice cases. What is this legislature doing determining medical malpractice cases? Imperfect baby cases.”
But that critique, say claims bill supporters, goes over the line. Proponents of claims bills say the cases before lawmakers represent people who were injured, through no fault of their own, by governments and medical entities. The issue is close to home for Palm Beach Democratic Representative Kevin Rader.
“My mom, walked into a hospital that has sovereign immunity, after my election in 2012….for elective surgery. And came out a parapalegic," Rader said.
Hager, and fellow Representative John Wood describe the claims bill system as a lottery, and point to the bills pending before the legislature as the ones with the winning tickets. But Tallahassee Attorney Lance Block says it was the House that limited the type of claims that would be up for consideration.
“Only a select class of claims bills were taken up by the house. It came down to they were willing to pass only local government settled claims bills," said Block.
Only nine representatives voted against the claims bills in the House. And Monday the proposals began moving in the Senate.
Block says he’s optimistic the bills will get through. While he disagrees with the process of claims bills, and would rather see them dealt with in court—he’s mindful that the cases they represent are severe, and points to the case of a Palm Beach County man who was run over by a school bus, and suffered severe brain injuries. Once his insurance ran out, he was placed in a nursing home—where care was limited.
“His doctor wrote a letter to the Senate president, telling him if they didn’t pass a claims bill to get Mr. Abbott out of the nursing home and able to receive the therapies he wasn’t receiving he would probably die. And last summer, he died, because they didn’t pass the claims bill.”
Imperfect as it may be, for every claim that gets through the legislature, there are others that continue to wait for a resolution. And for some, like the Abbots, that resolution may come too late.
*Correction: 14, not 13 claims bills were considered.