Bill would double sovereign immunity cap

Bill would double sovereign immunity cap

Rep. Fiona McFarland

The latest effort to reform Florida’s “sovereign immunity” laws is moving in the Florida House, over the strong objection of charity hospitals, rural schools, and local governments.

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 17-1 on January 11 to approve HB 569 by Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota. Republican Rep. Patt Maney, a retired Okaloosa judge, cast the lone dissenting vote.

Sovereign immunity, which protects governments from lawsuits, refers to the divine right of kings — and has no place in a modern democracy, McFarland said.

“It is in the American character to be highly skeptical of the sovereign,” she said.

The bill would double an existing $200,000 per-person and $300,000 per-incident cap on damage awards, beyond which, an injured plaintiff would have to seek legislative approval through passage of a “claims” bill.

In addition to increasing the per-person and per-incident caps to $400,000 and $600,000 respectively, the measure would allow local governments to negotiate higher settlements without first seeking legislative approval.

Other provisions would tie future cap increases to the Consumer Price Index and prohibit insurance companies from conditioning payments on the passage of a claims bill.

Speaking on behalf of the Florida Justice Association, Jacksonville attorney Matthew Posgay thanked McFarland for sponsoring the bill.

Despite inflation, the caps haven’t changed in 15 years, Posgay said. Last year, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, proposed raising the per-person cap to $1 million.

“You all have worked on a good compromise to get a fair number,” Posgay said.

Local governments warned that the bill would threaten their ability to deliver essential services.

“Don’t lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day, we’re dealing with taxpayer dollars,” said David Cruz, deputy general counsel for the Florida League of Cities.

Unlike a corporation, local governments can’t raise prices or reduce services to offset liability insurance costs, Cruz argued.

“We can’t ask a firefighter to sign a waiver before he runs into a burning building,” he said.

The Panhandle Area Education Consortium, a collection of rural schools in Northwest Florida, can’t close football fields and basketball arenas, or stop school bus deliveries, the biggest sources of its liability exposure, said general counsel Bob Harris.

Insurance costs, one of the consortium’s biggest expenses, will skyrocket, Harris warned.

“We can’t afford this. We just cannot afford this,” he said.

The Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida — eight health systems that include teaching and children’s hospitals — would see a $107 million cost increase, according to a Willis Towers Watson study, said Mark Delegal, the alliance’s general counsel.

“That’s real money that would have to come out of something we’re already spending money on. And that’s conservative,” Delegal said.

Increasing the caps will generate more lawsuits, Delegal said.

“When the honey pot is bigger, there will be more bears coming for it,” he said.

Republican Rep. Mike Beltran, a Riverview attorney, said there is another way to interpret Delegal’s honey pot argument.

“What you’re really saying is that there are people getting injured who are not being compensated,” Beltran said.

Beltran said he has been sponsoring reforms for several years because he believes the system is “broken.”

“I’ll tell you, when you bring a claim against the government, you have absolutely no leverage,” he said.

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