TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — In the state of Florida, sovereign immunity protects state employees from most legal actions against them. However, in cases of negligence, there are exceptions, such as lawsuits over injury, death, or damage to property. A Florida statute makes it the responsibility of lawmakers to approve settlements that are for sums over $300,000.
Florida statute 768.28 waives sovereign immunity for tort liability. This allows state agencies or subdivisions with the exception of the Florida Space Authority or a municipality, to be subject to legal action like lawsuits and claims by Florida residents.
However, it also comes with a soft limit on the settlement payouts, called relief.
Any settlement amount that rises above $200,000 after a claim or judgment in favor of the plaintiff must be approved by the Legislature in order to be paid. This makes receiving the payments complicated for those who do manage to win their cases.
“Neither the state nor its agencies or subdivisions shall be liable to pay a claim or a judgment by any one person which exceeds the sum of $200,000 or any claim or judgment, or portions thereof, which, when totaled with all other claims or judgments paid by the state or its agencies or subdivisions arising out of the same incident or occurrence, exceeds the sum of $300,000,” according to FS 768.28.
Still, in cases where a judgment is above $200,000 or $300,000, the state statute allows for the amount settled to be paid in part, up to that amount. Anything higher must be approved by a vote in the Florida Legislature.
“…a judgment or judgments may be claimed and rendered in excess of these amounts and may be settled and paid pursuant to this act up to $200,000 or $300,000, as the case may be,” the law says, “and that portion of the judgment that exceeds these amounts may be reported to the Legislature, but may be paid in part or in whole only by further act of the Legislature.”
So, if a claimant wins their case and a settlement for half a million dollars is reached, they could get the first $200,000 to $300,000 immediately, or over time, based on the agreement. The remainder of the settlement would need to be approved by state lawmakers in a vote during the legislative session.
Sometimes, this process of final legislator approval can take years, as was the case in a settlement approved last year between the estate of Crystle Marie Galloway and the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners, or the estate of Emilio Jesus Vizcaino-Aday and Miami-Dade County.
Galloway’s estate had been approved for a $2.45 million claim in 2018. Vizcaino-Aday’s estate had won $350,000 in the same year.
Despite the settlements, neither amount was approved to be paid by the state until the 2021 legislative session, where Gov. Ron DeSantis signed off on the bills for it after both cleared the vote in the legislature.
Still, in the coming legislative session for 2022, there are more settlements that need lawmaker approval to complete payout. Some are for lawsuits over injury, others for wrongful imprisonment. Of the 18 cases seeking legislative approval for final payments, some cases are from as far back as 1988.
In Tampa Bay, there are currently three cases awaiting approval by vote in the 2022 session. For the claimants waiting on the approval, sometimes for decades, the amounts can reach into the tens of millions of dollars.