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Average citizens face an uphill battle against interest groups to get laws changed in Florida

For years, citizens have tried persuading lawmakers to repeal Florida's “free kill” law
Posted: 3:28 PM, Mar 08, 2024 Updated: 7:41 PM, Mar 08, 2024
By: Katie LaGrone

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As Florida’s 2024 legislative session ends, Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone is showing you a side of Florida’s law-making process the public rarely gets to see.

For months, she followed two average citizens trying to persuade lawmakers to change Florida’s “free kill” law.

                        In Focus:

•  The Challenge to Influence without Big Money
•  "Something has to change"
•  Florida's Law Factory: "It's emotional, it's draining, it's exhausting."
•  Big Business and Special Interest Groups
•  Lawmaker: "You'd like my help? Tell her to be respectful."
•  Florida's Free Kill Law Remains

        The Challenge to Influence without Big Money

It’s just before 9 am in January, one day before the start of Florida’s 2024 legislative session.

Sabrina Davis and Marcia Scheppler have taken off from work and are on the road but are not off the clock.

“Wow, this is the day,” Marcia said from the passenger seat as the two women set off for Tallahassee from Sabrina’s home in Gainesville.

“How many appointments do we have today,” asked Sabrina.

“A lot,” said Marcia, who lives in St. Lucie.

Marcia and Sabrina have been hustling for years to get heard in Tallahassee. In a city where lobbyists and special interests often call the shots, Sabrina and Marcia are just average citizens.

Yet, they hoped the power of their personal stories would be enough to connect with lawmakers and convince them to change state law.

                      “Something has to change.”
In this case, their fight revolves around Florida’s 34-year-old Wrongful Death Act, which critics describe as the “free kill” law. It essentially says if a doctor’s mistake kills an unmarried adult, their families can’t sue for pain and suffering

Sabrina and Marcia want the law eliminated.

Neither of them had ever heard of the law until they each found themselves being impacted by it.

In 2020, Sabrina’s 62-year-old father went to a Tampa hospital for knee pain and died five days later. Her father, a Navy veteran, was on a blood thinner and had a history of blood clots. But Sabrina said despite their requests to do an ultrasound for blood clots, the doctor refused and instead ordered physical therapy.

“They thought my dad needed bed rest. They thought he might have pulled a muscle. It was red, and it was swollen. It was so obvious that it was more than a pulled muscle,” she explained to us last year.

While Florida’s Board of Medicine disciplined the doctor for her father’s death, the state’s Wrongful Death Act has prevented Sabrina from being able to litigate the case in civil court because her father was unmarried and she was over the age of 25 at the time of his death.

For Marcia, the law prevented her from being able to sue over the death of her 29-year-old son, Joseph. Marica explained how her son went into septic shock in 2019 after being denied treatment outside of a Florida hospital.

Joseph had Down syndrome, autism, and was non-verbal, but since he was an adult and not married, Marcia isn’t able to bring the case to court under state law.

Marica believes the law isn’t just morally and ethically wrong but is also discriminatory since Florida law does not allow people with intellectual disabilities to be able to marry legally in the first place.

“I'm hoping one way or another we can protect the future Joe's because that's really what I'm all about,” she said.

Over the past few years, Sabrina and Marcia have bonded over their personal tragedies and their mission to get lawmakers to quash this law. Florida is the only state in the U.S. that limits who can sue for pain and suffering over fatal medical mistakes.

                      Florida's law factory:  ‘It’s emotional, it’s draining, it’s exhausting.”
For two women never involved in politics, they’ve become pretty good at playing the game.

Sabrina and Marica have worked the phones for months leading up to the 2024 legislative session. They traveled across the state to meet with lawmakers, all in an effort to persuade lawmakers to repeal subsection 8 of the Wrongful Death Act.

‘It’s emotional, it’s draining, it’s exhausting,” said Sabrina when we spoke with her in Tallahassee at the start of this session.

This year marks her third session trying to convince lawmakers to change the law, it’s Marcia’s fourth.

Unlike lobbyists who are paid by companies or organizations to advocate for or against a bill under consideration, Sabrina and Marcia are using their own money and personal time to try and influence lawmakers.

For two days at the beginning of the session, we followed them from office-to-office meeting with lawmakers to try to drum up support for a bill that was introduced to fully repeal the law.

“You want to make them remember you, you want to stand out, you want them to hear your voice and not forget you,” Sabrina told us during a break.

Several meetings with lawmakers became emotional for these citizen advocates.

“What this doctor took from my son and I was a big part of our lives, and I want to face him in court,” Sabrina told one lawmaker while getting emotional.

"This is a glitch. This needs to be cleaned up,” Representative Rick Roth said in response.

Roth also revealed that his sister died of medical negligence and was unmarried at the time, leaving his own family impacted by the law.

But while many lawmakers agree Florida’s “free kill” law unfairly and unjustly impacts affected Florida families, eliminating it has been a decade-long losing battle.

                       Big Business and Special Interest Groups
“This is a law that is pretty much in the books because of insurance companies and because of very large special interest,” explained Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who represents Orlando.

“The hardest bill that people pass are ones that aren't supported by lobbyists or interests, and so this is tough,” Democratic Senator Lauren Book told us after meeting with Sabrina and Marcia.

Book has introduced legislation to repeal the law but those efforts never garnered enough support to even make it to a Senate hearing.

“It’s hard, it’s a tough process,” Book said when referring to the power, money and influence big business and medical companies have had on the ability to keep this law in place for more than three decades.

The law was originally passed in 1990 as a way to keep doctors from leaving the state and keep medical malpractice premiums down. But three decades later, there’s no evidence doctors are leaving the state in droves and medical malpractice premiums in Florida are consistently among the highest nationwide, proving the existence of this law hasn’t had any impact on those rising costs.

Lawmaker:  “You’d like my help?  Then tell her to be respectful.”

But amid this rarely seen process of how influence is made, peddled, and used to get things done; our cameras also captured just how fragile lawmaker support can be in a puzzling moment that caught everyone in the room off guard.

During the last week of the session, we returned to Tallahassee as Sabrina continued to meet with lawmakers. One of them was Representative Dr. Joel Rudman, a physician who acknowledges that the law has done nothing to lower medical malpractice premiums.

As a result, Representative Rudman has pledged his support to help Sabrina gain support to repeal the law in future sessions. But that support seemed to suddenly waiver when the lawmaker became agitated after Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone started asking questions.

“I don't mean to be sort of aggressive here,” reporter LaGrone said. “But this has been a more than decade old fight to repeal what lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have described as an injustice, cruel, a glitch, something that clearly needs to be cleaned up. But here we are, and it's still on the books, and countless families are being impacted,” LaGrone said.

Representative Rudman began to explain, "I think there's s factions on both side. On the one side, you have the trial attorneys. We certainly don't want this to be a windfall. We certainly don't want there to be a glut of frivolous lawsuits."

But when reporter LaGrone tried to explain that there was no evidence repealing the law would result in a glut of “frivolous” lawsuits, Representative Rudman responded by raising his voice and pointing aggressively at reporter LaGrone.

“Well, now you're interrupting me. So do you want to ask me the questions, or would you like me to ask you the questions,” he asked, clearly frustrated.

Representative Rudman then looked at photojournalist Matthew Apthorp and motioned for him to stop recording the interview.

“Let's cut that,” he said. “Let's cut that. No, you're going to let me finish, or we'll throw this out. Start over. I was making two points, okay. Let me make my points. Who's the physician here,” he said angrily.

But before he ended his outrage, he looked over at Sabrina Davis, who was standing off to the side, and stated,” Sabrina, you'd like my help? Then tell her to be respectful,” referring to reporter LaGrone. 

The remarks appeared to suggest the lawmaker’s support seemed to hinge on how the reporter was asking questions.

                          Florida's "Free Kill" Law Remains
This session five separate bills were introduced to repeal all or a portion of Florida’s so-called free kill law, the most since advocates started asking lawmakers to quash it more than a decade ago.

One bill was introduced by Senator Clay Yarborough and went so far as being discussed during a Senate hearing where special interest groups weighed in. However, the bill eventually died without explanation.

William Large with the Florida Justice Reform Institute is a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist who represents several of those special interest groups.

When asked if lobbyists and special interest groups make it more difficult for average citizens to get heard by lawmakers, Large said no. “They've been heard loud and clear,” he said.

When asked if he thinks special interest groups have an unfair advantage over average citizens because they often contribute thousands of dollars to lawmaker campaigns, Large said, “I think everyone is on an equal playing field.”

But even lawmakers acknowledge that’s not always the case.

When we asked similar questions to Senator Yarborough, whose bill on the topic was debated for the first time in a Senate hearing, Yarborough responded, “That’s a fair question. It really depends on which member you ask."

Yarborough also said while his bill died this year, he plans to introduce another bill to repeal the law next session.

"It doesn't matter to me what some of the external paid hired folks are saying. This law is unjust, and I want it off the books,” he said. 

But for now, it stays, leaving Sabrina Davis and Marcia Scheppler continuing a mission they knew would take time to complete but didn’t realize it would be so hard to win.

“I’m hugely disappointed,” said Marcia.

“I’m hurt and disappointed,” said Sabrina before adding, “I tried. I fought with everything I had. I’m not giving up, but this is an exhausting fight.”