Paralyzed Kids Hire Florida Lobbyists With Millions at Stake

Watching over comatose Eric Brody after a South Florida sheriff’s deputy smashed into the 18-year-old’s AMC Concord in 1998 were his parents, his doctors -- and his lobbyist.

Fourteen years later, Brody is a 32-year-old paraplegic with three firms trying to persuade lawmakers in Tallahassee to grant him more than the $200,000 that Florida law permits him to collect from jury awards against the state. Today the House of Representatives voted to give him $10.75 million. His lobbying team may collect as much as $2.7 million of that.

Opposing Brody: 23 lobbyists for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and two units of Fairfax Financial Holdings Inc., a Toronto-based insurer. The sheriff’s office and the companies spent $1.2 million from 2009 through 2011 on lobbyists, including two ex-Senate presidents and a former state Supreme Court justice, records show.

Florida lawmakers this year introduced bills to grant such claims for 57 people or their estates, the most in five years, according to legislative records. In the Capitol of the fourth-most-populous state, Brody’s case has become emblematic of these high-stakes battles in which lobbyists and lawyers may pocket millions while arguing about justice for the wrongly imprisoned, for paralyzed adults and for abused children.

“It seems to me those bills have become politicized,” Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon, 43, told reporters last month. “It’s less about compensating the individual claimant who’s suffered a terrible injury and more about lobbying fees.”

Regal Right

The caps on awards against governments are part of so-called sovereign-immunity laws and can be traced to British doctrine that the king can’t be sued in his own court. Florida is one of at least 33 states with such limits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

They range from a low of $100,000 in Nevada to as much as $1.5 million in Oregon, according to the NCSL. In Pennsylvania, where Pennsylvania State University may seek to limit its liability in the sex-abuse case involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, awards are capped at $250,000.

Florida’s $200,000 ceiling, authorized by its 1968 constitution, applies to the state, its municipalities and nongovernment entities that meet one of 13 criteria, including some businesses that do work for the government. The law lets legislators lift the limit with a so-called claim bill. Only Nebraska and North Dakota have similar mechanisms, according to the NCSL.

Capitol Celebrities

From 2007 to 2011, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature waived caps 38 times and approved $82.5 million in payments, or 59 percent more money than in the previous five years, according to state reports.

This year, the law has made celebrities of Brody and others, including William Dillon, a 52-year-old former Canova Beach surfer cleared of murder after 27 years in prison, and Aaron Edwards, a 14-year-old Colorado boy paralyzed during his delivery at a Fort Myers hospital.

Brody’s case began in Sunrise, near Fort Lauderdale, on March 3, 1998, as he turned left in his AMC into his neighborhood after a night of selling sneakers at a mall. He was hit by the deputy, late for work and speeding in his Crown Victoria as fast as 70 miles per hour (113 kph), according to state records. The Concord was hurled across a grass shoulder and into a wall dividing the street from the subdivision.

With the Family

Though Brody, a disc jockey for his high-school radio station who had hoped to start a business major the next year, wore his seatbelt, he was thrown toward the passenger side of the car, suffering broken ribs and a fractured skull that left him in a coma for six months, according to state records.

Chuck Brody, his father, said lawyer-lobbyist Lance Block, a former Florida Justice Association president, was hired while Eric was hospitalized and has been at his side since the first days. The Brodys sued the Broward Sheriff’s Office and won $30.9 million in damages in 2005, a sum upheld on appeal. Now, the family must persuade lawmakers to let them have a portion.

Chuck Brody drives Eric and the rest of his family 460 miles (740 kilometers) to meetings in Tallahassee, where Block argues for his son. Brody, with black tape wrapped around his wheelchair’s worn armrests, has made at least five trips this session.

He and the other victims have become Capitol fixtures. Edwards, who speaks through a computer, had lawmakers in tears during a February meeting.

Making the Case

Dillon, whose $1.35 million compensation bill Governor Rick Scott signed March 1 in a public ceremony, said that despite their compelling stories, individuals need lobbyists to tell them. His bill, championed by Republican Senate President Mike Haridopolos and two lobbyists who took the case for free, needed four years to pass.

“I couldn’t have done this by myself,” Dillon, now a musician in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said in a Capitol interview. “Everybody kept turning their nose and frowning at it like it was some sort of cancer lesion.”

Opponents’ lobbying has intensified, too.

“These types of cases used to be the sleepy backwater,” said Pete Antonacci, a lobbyist for GrayRobinson, a Florida law firm. “Not anymore.”

Antonacci and his firm work for insurers of at least six defendants. They include Fairmont Specialty Insurance Co., which insures the Broward sheriff’s office, and a subsidiary of Southfield, Michigan-based Meadowbrook Insurance Group Inc. In five cases involving Antonacci’s clients that passed House committees this year, claims were reduced to a total of $17 million from $38.5 million.

Discharging a Responsibility

The insurers also spend money on politicians directly.

Four of Fairmont’s fellow Fairfax subsidiaries --Riverstone Claims Management LLC, Riverstone Resources LLC, TIG Insurance and Ranger Insurance -- have given at least $212,000 to parties, lawmakers and candidates since 2008, according to campaign-finance records.

Insurers have never been so involved in claim bills, said Ron Book, a Tallahassee lobbyist for more than two decades.

“That’s new,” he said. “But look: Carriers have some responsibility to their shareholders, especially those who are insuring based on a belief there is a doctrine of sovereign immunity.”

Brody has his own powerhouse. One firm representing him is Tallahassee-based Ballard Partners, whose clients include Honda Motor Co. and Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees.

Money Everywhere

Brian Ballard, its president, is among Florida’s most reliable fundraisers, collecting more than $3 million for Scott’s inauguration last year and heading presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s state money-raising operation this year. His 116 clients include Jacksonville-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, which donated $2.4 million to politicians and political action committees in 2011, and Automated Healthcare Solutions. That Miramar company gave $2.3 million from July 28, 2010 to Dec. 28, 2011, records show.

And then there are the trial lawyers.

Chris Searcy and his West Palm Beach-based Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley represent Aaron Edwards, the paralyzed teenager. Searcy and the firm gave $84,000 last year to parties, political committees and lawmakers, including Senator Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican sponsoring a bill that might mean $3.8 million for the firm.

Hitting the Airwaves

Flores’s bill would allow a $15 million settlement for Edwards, diagnosed with cerebral palsy after an error at Lee Memorial Health System, a Fort Myers hospital with sovereign immunity. A jury decided his condition was caused by oxygen deprivation when workers gave Aaron’s mother too much Pitocin, a hormone that stimulates contractions.

After the proposal stalled, a 30-second television ad aired in February targeting state Representative Gary Aubuchon, a Republican from Cape Coral and a U.S. House candidate. Aubuchon, whose district includes the hospital, controls what measures the House considers.

“Last year, the House refused to hear Aaron’s bill,” a narrator says while an image of Aaron being hugged by his mother plays on screen. “Representative Gary Aubuchon can change that. Aaron can’t stand for himself. Mr. Aubuchon, this year, will you stand for Aaron?”

The ad was paid for by Friends of Aaron Edwards LLC, according to a disclaimer. The group is registered to Joan Williams, the Searcy firm’s public relations director, state records show.

Negotiating Pay

The House today voted 97-14 to make the hospital pay $15 million. The chamber also approved another change: Instead of letting Aaron’s attorneys collect the 25 percent allowed under the law, they would get 0.3 percent. The Senate bill, which has not received a final vote, allows for 25 percent in fees.

A similar conflict is the last hurdle in Brody’s bill. Both the House and Senate cut Brody’s jury verdict by two-thirds. The Senate, however, would let Brody’s lawyers and lobbyists collect 25 percent of the award, while the House plan caps fees at $400,000, or less than 4 percent. The chamber passed its plan 107-7.

Haridopolos said today that lobbying fees should be “consistent” and the Senate might reverse the House changes in the final days of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end March 9.

“I want to get paid,” Block said. “I’ve worked on this case for 14 years. But the most important thing is Eric gets his money.”