ORANGE COUNTY — A man who was injured in an Orlando crash involving a county employee may be awarded $750,000 by Orange County rather than a $2.9 million award from a 2012 jury trial.
Robert Allan Smith was injured in a 2006 crash in College Park, an Orlando neighborhood. Smith was riding his motorcycle when he was struck by an Orange County government van being driven by Lynn Lawrence Godden, a county employee, according to background information in legislative documents.
Smith was caused life-altering injuries that resulted in the amputation of his right leg above the knee, as well as a broken pelvis, damage to internal organs and fractures to his left leg.
Smith has already been paid $100,000 by the county, but given the severity of the injuries, has been unable to carry on a normal life since the accident.
Smith's injuries were extensive, which is why the jury in Florida's 9th Judicial Circuit Court awarded Smith $2.9 million, but that award would be decreased to only $750,000 in a bill proposed in the House. This reduction of the award is legal and within the normal methods exercised in cases such as Smith v. Orange County when awards are thought to be excessive in their amounts.
"Pursuant to long-standing Florida law, the state and its subdivisions have sovereign immunity for lawsuits and the authorized way of obtaining compensation is through a claims bill process," Dan Gerber of Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell in Orlando, told Florida Record.
The claims bill process that is meant to protect the government from excessive payouts has already been enacted through HB 6517, which would reduce the award amount in the case of Smith v. Orange County, said Albert Balido, an advocate for Smith and consultant with Anfield Consulting.
"The reason why you have a claims bills process was that you wanted to put a mechanism in place where people would not be suing or harassing cities and counties or the state and put these folks in a bad position to have to pay out a claim over and above sovereign immunity, a holdover from English common law," Balido told Florida Record. "You can't sue the king, and the state and the municipal government is, by extension, the king."
Florida adopted a sovereign immunity cap allowing the government to pay a certain amount of money, $200,000 in the case of the accident and $300,000 in the aggregate, but beyond those caps, a special law must be enacted to exceed the sovereign immunity amount.
"The claim bill process was set up to basically say if something happens, and a special circumstance arises where a state or municipal government have to pay out from public dollars, more than the $200,000, then a special act of the legislature must be passed," Balido said.
The Legislature is involved in the case of Smith v. Orange County because the county is a charter of the state government and the sole appropriator of tax dollars.
As the state is the institution that decides where tax dollars are spent, local politicians are always looking for ways to save taxpayer money by drafting bills such as HB 6517, which was sponsored by Rep. Bob Cortes (R-Altamonte Springs).
"The purpose was done to make sure that these were legitimate cases that were handled and that they exhausted all of the cases of appeals and that they were encouraged to try and settle," Cortes told Florida Record.
Since HB 6517 was drafted, the state Senate also drafted a version, SB 54. The Florida Legislature requires the House and Senate to sponsor identical bills, but only one can be passed.
"My bill has moved faster and is ready to be heard on the House floor," Cortes said. "My bill will go to the Senate and the Senate will, instead of taking their language, they have the option of taking my bill and laying theirs on the table and then my bill is the one that gets passed."
But the question remains how the state can get away with paying over $2 million less than the original award was without further damaging the plaintiff.
"There's a bit of the method to the madness there," Balido said. "One, the extraordinary power that municipalities have in saying no is a huge factor, but also it's the damages that are ultimately due to the victim in question."
Damages could include liens, which can save the county a great deal of money if they can be negotiated down by the municipality.
"If you add up his liens and his future care that is going to be accumulated over his life, his liens versus his jury verdict, he probably would have ended up in the neighborhood of about $800,000 to $900,000 of money to him, and the rest of his verdict would have been eaten up by liens, attorneys' fees," Balido said.
The power of the municipality to waive the liens results in the plaintiff receiving 70 percent to 80 percent of what he would have received with the original jury award and save the county over $2 million.