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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Politics

Claim bill process disgusts state Rep. Grant


Published:   |   Updated: September 2, 2014 at 11:01 AM

A lawsuit seeking $375,000 from a brain-damaged and paralyzed Broward County man caused a choke-on-his-Cheerios moment for state Rep. Jamie Grant.

Grant, a Tampa Republican, shepherded what’s known as a claim bill through the Florida Legislature in 2012, enabling Eric Brody to get $10.75 million in compensation for injuries he sustained 14 years earlier.

Brody, a high school senior at the time, was driving when his car was hit by a speeding sheriff’s deputy who was late for work.

Tallahassee-based Sachs Media Group sued in July, seeking payment for public-relations work it did for Brody’s advocates from 2008 to 2012 as they were trying to get lawmakers to pass the legislation to pay him.

Here’s the rub for Grant, and why he says he’ll once again press for an overhaul of the claim bill process: The bill passed because he cajoled Brody’s legal and lobbying team to forgo any payment from the money Brody eventually received.

“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.

Florida law limits local governments and other public bodies to paying no more than $200,000 per person in damages unless lawmakers pass a claim bill, also known as a relief act, for extra money.

The legal doctrine of sovereign immunity protects governments from suits unless they agree to be sued.

But that blanket protection has been chipped away over the years, after incidents in which otherwise innocent citizens were harmed. In 1973, Florida lawmakers decided to allow some suits against the government.

Since then, lawmakers have developed distaste for claim bills, especially after years of intense lobbying against them by public entities and their insurance companies, and for them by claimants.

For example, Fairmont Insurance Co., the insurer of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, fought against the Brody claim bill for years.

Some in the Legislature have tried to streamline the process to make it fairer and easier for the injured to receive money, but those efforts have gone nowhere.

That’s because defendants — city and county governments, sheriff’s offices, public hospitals — have nothing to gain and everything to lose by changing the status quo.

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As it is, the Legislature passes few claim bills overall. A Florida House survey of claim bills shows that of the 299 claims filed in the last 10 legislative sessions, 55 passed — roughly two out of every 10. Those claims were worth a combined $118 million.

Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, declined to hear any claim bills in his chamber this past session.

Last year, Grant led a special committee that recommended changes to the process, including putting certain restrictions on lobbyists and raising the cap on damages paid by local governments to $1 million per person.

The panel’s work, however, wasn’t adopted.

Meantime, claimants continue to line up every year at the Capitol door. For next session, 32 claim bills already have been filed.

They include relief for Jennifer Wohlgemuth, seriously injured in 2005 when a Pasco County sheriff’s deputy slammed into her car during a pursuit.

Her brain swelled so much doctors had to remove a piece of her skull.

Wohlgemuth, then 21, now has the “behavior and impulse control … of a 7-year-old child,” needs constant supervision and “suffers from severe memory loss (and) partial loss of vision,” among other damages, her bill says. It seeks $8.6 million for her ongoing care.

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As to the Brody lawsuit, the head of the PR firm says he never agreed to waive his fee.

His work resulting in “newspaper articles, TV and radio reports, news conferences, special events, editorials (and) significant social media” was instrumental in the bill’s passage, the suit said.

“Our agreement with the Brody family provided for our firm to receive compensation only if a claims bill was approved,” company president Ron Sachs told the Tribune-Scripps Capital Bureau.

“Our work kept the claims bill alive for several years until it finally won legislative approval,” Sachs said. “Our firm attempted to reach an amicable resolution with the Brody family, but unfortunately we could not reach an agreement.

“We were left with no option but to seek resolution in court … and hope that we can resolve this matter in the same spirit in which we worked together for so many years,” Sachs added.

Grant points out a published interview in which Sachs’ former executive vice president, Alia Faraj-Johnson, was asked who her “favorite pro bono client” was. She responded, “Eric Brody.”

Pro bono refers to work done without pay, usually for a needy client.

A Sachs representative previously said she “misspoke.” Faraj-Johnson, now with Hill & Knowlton, has not responded to emails and phone messages seeking comment.

Brody is represented by Boca Raton attorney Daniel Rosenthal of the Akerman law firm. A spokeswoman for the firm said Rosenthal was unable to comment.

“I expect we’ll see some sort of reform on this process,” Grant said. “It’s on my short list of things to try and get done next year.

“It’s funny,” he added. “I’ve had more phone calls about claim bills since this lawsuit was filed than I ever had.”

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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