Florida’s Claims Bill System is Broken

The claims bill system in Florida is broken. Two recent news stories highlight the problems with Florida’s claims bill system and show why it desperately needs reform:

First, the SB Nation story of Devaughn Darling’s death and his family’s year-after-year attempt to get the Florida legislature to give them the money they’re entitled to under a settlement.

Second, the lawsuit over Eric Body’s successful claims bill filed by a public-relations firm now trying to get a payout for work they claimed was pro bono.

But before getting into details, let’s talk about what a claims bill is and how it works.

What is a Claims Bill?

Let’s start off with a terrible scenario: During a police chase of a dangerous fugitive, a police car runs through a red light, tee-bones your car, leaving you paralyzed from the neck down. Unable to work or pay your medical bills, you file a lawsuit against the police department. The police department decides to settle out your claim for $1,000,000 – great news, right?

But there’s a big catch – the police department is sovereignly immune from claims like yours, and under Florida law only has to pay $200,000 of your total damages. Anything over the $200,000 has to come from a specific appropriation from the legislature, meaning it has to be sponsored by a legislator, passed by both the Florida House and Senate, and signed by the governor.

Did I mention that in addition to the lawyers you’ve already hired you will need a lobbyist or two who understand the legislative system. People with larger claims bills also need a public-relations firm to push news stories about the case and to sway public opinion in your favor to pressure more legislators into voting for your claim.

There are additional requirements as well, and the process is so complex that the Florida Legislature publishes its own “Legislative Claims Bill Manual.”

Did I also mention that the money to pay for a claims bill comes out of the state budget – meaning that the state must decide to dole out taxpayer revenue for the bill to pass. As you can imagine this is a hard calculus for elected politicians trying to please their voters and steer that money to their districts.

This adds up to delay after delay, and a system where only about two of every ten claims bills ever pass. in the 2014 legislative session no claims bills were passed. This means you have maybe less than a 20% chance of ever getting the money the police department agreed that you should get for you injury.

Florida’s Claims Bill System Needs Reform:

I really can’t say it better than Michael Kruse did in his powerful SB Nation article:

WHEREAS, sometimes claims bills in Florida don’t pass because the state doesn’t have the money, when property taxes are down, or there’s a recession, and a bare-bones budget barely covers what the state is supposed to do for its citizens, and that’s fine, but the budget for the state of Florida in 2014 was a record-breaking $77.1 billion, with a surplus of $1.2 billion.

WHEREAS, sometimes claims bill don’t pass because certain powerful politicians think listening to sad stories and then picking which sad stories are the saddest as a way to decide who deserves money is unseemly, and that might be, but that’s part of the process.

WHEREAS, sometimes claims bills don’t pass because certain powerful politicians think this process is so unfair, so broken, they won’t consider any of them until the process is fixed, even though they don’t offer any ideas about how it might be fixed.

WHEREAS, sometimes claims bill don’t pass because certain powerful politicians say it’s difficult to balance emotion and facts — and that’s just not a good enough reason, because all of them were elected by the people of the state of Florida, most of whom do that every single day.

WHEREAS, sometimes claims bills don’t pass because certain powerful politicians think lobbyists working on behalf of attorneys have too much influence — and that’s not a good enough reason, either, not even close, because of course lobbyists have influence, and anyway it’s not like influence is a one-way street.

Let’s not forget the other story I mentioned up top about Eric Brody, whose family is now the target of a lawsuit by a PR firm seeking $375,000 in compensation for services that were supposed to be pro bono. Here’s what the legislator who pushed the claims bill for Eric Brody through the legislative red tape factory had to say about the PR firm’s lawsuit money grab:

“I will always, always be ticked as long as this lawsuit is out there,” Grant said. “I worked for two years on (the Brody bill), and it became a very personal, very emotional issue, more so than any bill I have ever filed.”

Moreover, because the claim bill forbids paying “attorney fees, lobbying fees, costs, or other similar expenses,” Grant says if Brody’s guardians pay anything to Sachs, it will violate the terms and open the door for the insurance company to take the money back.

“That’s why it’s so disgusting,” he said.

That legislator, Jamie Grant, has been pushing for several years to reform and streamline the complicated and ineffective claims bill system. Let’s hope he’s successful, because the way the system is now doesn’t work.

Want to do something? Call your legislators (Florida House link hereFlorida Senate link here). Tell them the claims bill system needs fixing.