House committee passes contentious claims bill overhaulby Dara Kam | March 21st, 2013
A Florida House committee took the first step toward revamping the state’s claims bills over the objections of cities, counties, public hospitals and other “sovereign” entities.
But House Select Committee on Claims Bills Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, called Florida’s claims bill process a broken system that encourages local governments not to settle with victims because of the time, expense and uncertainty of getting a settlement passed even if the local governments agree to pay it.
The committee grudgingly approved the proposal with a 5-3 vote after a contentious debate in which no one from the audience spoke in favor of the plan. Both Republicans and Democrats who supported the measure said they had serious reservations about its impact on local governments.
The measure would raise the current $200,000 per individual cap 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 also places a “hard cap” on payments for those with insurance by barring individuals who get those payments from being able to seek additional money. Claims against governments without insurance would have to be paid out of state coffers. It would also require lawyers representing claimants to register as lobbyists and require a majority of the local delegation to approve the claim at a public meeting.
Palm Beach County lobbyist Todd Bonlarron argued against raising the caps because claimants often settle as close to the current caps as possible. He said that raising the caps will likely cause future claimants to seek more money than they might have otherwise.
And, he said, the higher caps may have a negative impact on county vendors that are required to carry the same level of insurance that the county, which is self-insured, has.
Lobbyist Bob Harris, who represents a consortium of Panhandle school districts, called the claims bills “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” that will increase the number of claims people make against local governments.
“If you increase the size of that pot of gold, more people are going to go after that pot of gold,” Harris told the committee.
Grant agreed that the new caps may encourage lawsuits.
“I also believe that the current caps discourage legitimate claims. If a child in your district is sexually abused at a school, should a cap prevent legitimate litigation and accountability of that school district?” Grant said.
The proposal “takes a very bad situation and makes it even worse,” argued former state Rep. Keith Arnold, a lobbyist for Lee Memorial Healthcare System.
The Legislature last year approved the payment for Aaron Edwards, who suffers from cerebral palsy after a problematic delivery at the Fort Myers Hospital. The hospital denied responsibility for his injuries but was is now responsible for paying the claim after Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law. A Lee County jury had awarded Edwards’s family $31 million.
The Senate does not have a similar proposal and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said he would not approve any claims bills without reforms to the system.
Grant said his intention is to “try and fix a broken process.”
“Everybody in this rooms has problems (with the bill),” he said. “That let’s me know we’re doing a good job.”