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Claims bill reform off the table this year

by Dara Kam | March 28th, 2013

Florida cities, counties, public hospitals and other “sovereign” entities have put the brakes on an overhaul of the state’s claims bill process that allows people who have been harmed or injured by local governments to get paid more than $200,000 without the Legislature’s approval.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said a House plan to revamp the system is too contentious to tackle this year.

“It’s very, very controversial. It’s a total change of direction,” Lee said. “That’s going to take a lot of time and energy.”

As a result, the Senate won’t hear any claims bills this year at the direction of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who has said he won’t allow any of the bills to come up without a reform.

The House Select Committee on Claims Bills last week approved a plan that would raise the current $200,000 caps on individual payments to $1 million and $300,000 per-incident cap to $1.5 million to encourage local governments to purchase insurance or self-insure. The proposal would also impose a “hard cap” on payments for those with insurance by barring individuals who get those payments from being able to seek additional money.

No action on claims bills this year means that the family of Carl Abbott, a North Palm Beach man who was badly injured when a Palm Beach County school bus ran him over 2008, will have to wait at least another year for a $1.9 million settlement reached with the school board in 2009.

Abbott’s son, David, wants to use the money to move his father, now living in a nursing home and unable to eat on his own, into a facility where he can get rehabilitative care.

Lee said the claims bill process is troubled and inconsistent.

“My perspective has always been if we’re going to have sovereign immunity, then let’s have sovereign immunity. Why are we up here waiving it all the time just because there’s a difficult political situation?
I’ve never really understood the subjectiveness of the claims bill process and why somebody with the right lobbyist and the right lawyer and the right legislator behind it all of a sudden gets a huge payout for somebody when somebody else doesn’t,” he said. “It’s an imperfect process. We’re going to try to make it better. But it’s a heavy lift to try to reform that system. And until we do, we’re not going to be hearing any claims bills.”

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