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Joe Gruters

Jesse Scheckner - February 23, 2022

'At the end of the day, mistakes happen. Governments make mistakes.'

A contentious bill raising the cap for claims against the government is on its way to a full Senate vote after debate over proposed payout tiers prompted a last-minute change in its final committee stop.

The measure (SB 974) by Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters would change the maximum payout for claimants — who often sue the government for loss or injury — before they must go to the Legislature to overcome sovereign immunity, which prevents the government from settling pricey claims without its consent.

The Legislature can approve payments in excess of existing caps through measures called “claims bills” or “relief acts.”

Gruters’ bill and its analogue in the House (HB 985) by Lithia Republican Rep. Mike Beltran have undergone several changes since their initial filing last year. The most recent change to Gruters’ bill, which the Senate Rules Committee OK’d Wednesday, significantly lowers previously contemplated caps.

Earlier this month, a Senate panel increased the existing caps from $200,000 to $1 million per individual claimant and $300,000 to $3 million per incident. Those marks have now been reduced to $320,000 per individual and $640,000 per incident, pending additional changes and approval on the Senate floor.

The amended bill retained an earlier change removing the statute of limitations on sexual battery cases against victims younger than 16 at the time of the incident.

It also includes a provision allowing local governments, public educational institutions and other entities to waive sovereign immunity protections and pay claims in full without requiring action by the Legislature.

The new payout levels are meant to reflect the Consumer Price Index (CPI). It’s unclear whether lawmakers will bring back a stipulation in a prior version of the bill requiring the payout rates to be updated every decade based on the CPI. Language reflecting Gruters’ in-committee audible is still pending publication.

“At the end of the day, mistakes happen. Governments make mistakes, and most stakeholders I’ve talked to agree that some type of adjustment to the amount should happen. The question is, what should that amount be? We’ll continue to have discussions,” Gruters said. “The main point is the process and making sure we give the flexibility to communities so we don’t have to have these claims bills and all the (related) lobbying that takes place up here.”

Gruters proffered the last-minute change after hearing arguments from the public and his Senate colleagues against three amendments Palm Coast Republican Sen. Travis Hutson filed the day before.

Hutson’s proposed changes, which Gruters said he helped to draft over the weekend, would have also lowered previously contemplated caps. It also would have established a tiered system limiting claim values by population size.

Pre-legislative payout caps would remain at $200,000 and $300,000 for local governments with populations of 50,000 or less. Those caps would also remain for state universities, public colleges and other subdivisions of the state with sovereign immunity that are not direct extensions of the state, including public schools.

For counties and municipalities with populations of between 50,001 and 250,000, the limits would be $300,000 and $400,000. The state itself, its agencies and local governments with populations larger than 250,000 would have caps of $400,000 and $600,000.

Several members of the panel questioned why Gruters and Hutson opted for separate payout tiers rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg argued such a ranked system would defy equal protection rights under the Florida Constitution and operate at the expense of those seeking recompense.

He suggested implementing a flat rate based on the CPI.

“If you get into a car accident on one side of the street (instead of) the other side of the street, how are we going to argue that you should somehow be compensated less because that side of the street is in a community with … less than 50,000 people?” he said. “We cannot make a good-faith argument that equal protection does not apply here, and the courts are going to do it for us unless the Legislature can figure it out and do it ourselves.”

Ed Labrador, senior legislative counsel to the Florida Association of Counties, said the tiered approach sets a bad precedent that could disproportionately hurt localities in the future.

“While it looks good today, I could foresee a tiering of the state having its own limit and then the rest of our subdivisions having different limits,” he said. “That’s not what’s there today, but I can see it for the future because that’s how we do things around here. We don’t respect local government that much, and that’s what we’re afraid of.”

William Large, president of the Florida Justice Performance Institute, advocated against raising the current caps. He also concurred with Brandes’ assertion that dividing payout levels into different lanes would create an equal protection problem.

“There’s no rational basis for what you’ve done here today,” he said. “The lower caps will be declared unconstitutional, and all you all are going to be left with the higher caps of $400,000 and $600,000.”

“We’d like to see the caps remain the same,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point asked why Hutson’s amendments used population to separate payout tiers rather than a local government’s fiscal strength. Many towns with miniscule populations in South Florida are among the wealthiest in the state.

Regardless of that, he said, sovereign immunity is an antiquated policy and raising the cap across the board is the correct move.

“The notion that the government should be specially protected from its own negligence is outdated, outmoded,” he said. “I’m sure Sen. Hutson will have more grenades — I mean amendments — to offer Sen. Gruters as this goes forward, but raising the cap is the right (and) equitable thing to do.”

Hutson, who voted against the bill in its prior committee stop, explained that he’d devised the tiered system using population as a benchmark to attract broader support for the measure.

“It’s hard to pass this on to your taxing population, to the people that are in your area,” he said. “Sen. Gruters, in the next step if you want to do that one-size-fits-all approach, by all means go ahead. I’m just going to warn you, those that supported that amendment will be opposed to the bill.”

Beltran’s version of the bill was slated for a Wednesday afternoon hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, its final committee stop in the chamber. At the onset of the meeting, Rep. Erin Grall, the committee chair, announced the proposal would not be heard.

Just before 6 p.m. Tuesday, Beltran filed four amendments with substantial bearings on his bill. One would have reduced a uniform payout cap of $1 million to $500,000 per person and $1 million per incident.

Two others would clarify that the removal of a statute of limitations on sexual battery cases against victims younger than 16 at the time of the incident would only apply to claims not time-barred in 2010.

The last amendment would provide that the policies set forth in the bill would only apply to claims arising on or after Oct. 1, 2023.

Florida Politics has contacted Beltran’s office for comment and will update this story if he replies.