Can The Families of The Dozier Victims Sue?

The first set of remains of one of the 55 children buried at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida was just identified as Owen Smith. Allegations of abuse and mistreatment has raised questions as to how these children died at the school, and who should be responsible for their deaths. 

People have rightly called for justice for the families of these children, but, in looking at the reported “year of death” for the children, it is at best highly unlikely that parents or even siblings survive. We also don’t know (at least not yet) that abuse or mistreatment caused these deaths.

Can the families sue?

So is legal action on behalf of these dead children even possible? One legal case against the alleged abusers has already failed. In 2009 a group of men who were inmates at the school filed a class action suit which a judge tossed out of court in 2010, citing Florida’s statute of limitations. A claims bill (basically a piece of legislation that designates part of the state budget to compensate someone harmed by the state) was filed in the Florida legislature in 2012, which would have compensated the living former inmates, but ultimately failed to pass.

Florida’s wrongful death statute has a 2-year statute of limitations. Additionally, a wrongful death suit can only be brought to benefit the decedent’s estate and “survivors”, a term which the Florida Statutes specifically defines as “the decedent’s spouse, children, parents, and, when partly or wholly dependent on the decedent for support or services, any blood relatives and adoptive brothers and sisters”, meaning that it is highly likely no “survivors” are still alive.

Who is ultimately responsible?

Assuming survivors of the children could be found, any suit against the school would in reality be against the state of Florida itself becasue it operated it. This means any potential damages would be capped at $200,000 per claim under Florida’s “sovereign immunity” statute.

Another claims bill is the most likely vehicle for recovery. But here’s the catch – neither the Florida House nor the Senate will consider a claims bill prior to the exhaustion of all civil and administrative remedies (House Rule 5.6(c); Senate Rule 4.81(6)). This means that the Dozier Boys’ families will have to try their luck with the court system first.

At this point there may be enough political pressure building to encourage the Florida legislature to pass a claims bill, but that remains to be seen.