Suing for Damages? Bring Your Lobbyist
On March 3, 1998, 18-year-old Eric Brody was driving home from his job at a sports store in Sunrise, Fla., when a sheriff’s deputy smashed into his AMC Concord. The officer, late for work, was going as fast as 70 mph, according to court records. Brody skidded into a wall, ended up in a coma, and awoke six months later, a paraplegic. He sued the Broward County Sheriff’s Office for negligence, and a jury awarded him $30.9 million in damages in 2005. There was one hitch: Florida has a sovereign immunity law prohibiting plaintiffs who sue the state, its municipalities, and other public entities from collecting more than $200,000 in damages.
More than 30 states have similar laws protecting states from having to spend taxpayer funds on large jury awards. Florida is one of only three where plaintiffs can circumvent the statute, and a mini-industry has sprung up of lobbyists who have experience either helping plaintiffs bypass the cap or fighting those efforts. After a jury award, a lobbyist presses a state legislator to introduce a so-called claim bill that would override the $200,000 limit. The bill asks for a specific award from the public entity and attorneys’ fees, which by law can run to 25 percent of the award. From 2007 to 2011, Florida passed 38 claim bills into law, paying out $82.5 million, 59 percent more than in the previous five years.
Brody’s attorney, Lance Block, tries cases on a contingency fee basis and is also a registered lobbyist specializing in the claim bill process. In 2009 he successfully lobbied lawmakers to introduce a $30.7 million claim bill for Brody. It didn’t advance that year, so in 2010 Block brought in two lobbying firms as reinforcements: Ballard Partners, whose clients include Honda Motor and the New York Yankees, and Corcoran, Johnston & Blair, which represents Novartis and Wal-Mart Stores. “I want to get paid,” says Block. “I’ve worked on this case for 14 years.”
Undeterred by three failed attempts to get Brody’s bill passed, Block got it introduced once again this year. Brody became one of 57 people with bills under consideration, the greatest number since 2007. Eleven bills totaling $39.8 million passed in the two-month session that ended on March 9, the highest amount since 1998. Brody got $10.75 million. “These types of cases used to be the sleepy backwater,” says Peter Antonacci, a lobbyist who fought the Brody bill for Fairmont Specialty Insurance, the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s insurer. “Not anymore.” Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Republican, says the claim bill process has become politicized: “It’s less about compensating the individual claimant who’s suffered a terrible injury and more about lobbying fees.”
The parents of 14-year-old Aaron Edwards sued the public Lee Memorial Health System in Fort Myers for negligence in 1999, alleging its staff over-medicated his mother during delivery and caused his cerebral palsy. A jury in 2007 awarded the family $30.9 million. Republican State Senator Anitere Flores introduced a $30.7 million claim bill last year, but it stalled in a House committee.
So this year, Joan Williams, public-relations director for Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, the law firm that represented Edwards at trial, ran a television ad targeting Republican State Representative Gary Aubuchon, chair of the committee that schedules House votes. “Last year, the House refused to hear Aaron’s bill,” the ad’s narrator said. “Representative Gary Aubuchon can change that. Aaron can’t stand for himself. Mr. Aubuchon, this year will you stand for Aaron?”
Williams says she paid for the spot with her own money, along with a group of people she declines to identify. Williams shepherded Edwards and his mom through the statehouse last month as they pled their case to legislators. “The whole intention was to call it to [Aubuchon’s] attention,” Williams says of the ad. “It was certainly meant to be positive.”
Aubuchon says he saw the “completely inappropriate” ad as a threat. “I’m not aware … that anyone has experienced anything quite like this before,” he adds. Cannon, the House speaker, decided to crack down on the law firm; he reduced Edwards’s award to $15 million and limited his attorneys’ fees to 0.7 percent. The legislature passed that version of the bill on March 9.
Brody’s payment came after at least six trips to the statehouse with his lobbyists. Yet to get the measure through, Block had to do something highly unusual: waive all legal fees. He ceded to the deal just two days before the lawmakers’ 2012 session ended. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office and its insurer had already paid Antonacci and other lobbyists $1.2 million to fight the bill from 2009 to 2011, according to state records. Says Block of his loss: “You had [an] insurance giant that was willing to pay for the best lobbying talent in town.”