Florida Supreme Court puts limit on payment for Parkland families

Flowers, candles and mementos sit outside one of the makeshift memorials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 27, 2018. (RHONA WISE/AFP via Getty Images)

The Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that state law places a $300,000 limit on how much the Broward County School Board can be forced to pay to families and victims in lawsuits filed after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Justices issued opinions in the Broward County case and in a Florida Department of Children and Families case that dealt with the same legal questions about the potential liability of government agencies in mass shootings.

In both cases, the court said mass shootings should be viewed as a single “incident or occurrence,” effectively placing a sharp limit on how much government agencies can be forced to pay under a state sovereign-immunity law. Justices issued a detailed ruling in the Department of Children and Families case, which stemmed from a man fatally shooting his estranged wife and four of her children and wounding another child in 2010 in Palm Beach County.

“Today’s decision in no way devalues the lives of those injured or killed as a result of mass shootings, or the harm suffered as a result of such tragedies,” the court wrote in the Palm Beach County case. “It is a decision that is rendered within the narrow confines of Florida law relating to the Legislature’s limited waiver of sovereign immunity.”

Justices issued a brief opinion in the Broward County case, citing the legal reasoning in the other case.

Sovereign immunity laws are designed to shield government agencies from costly lawsuits and set limits on payment amounts.

The Broward County School Board argued that its liability in the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre at the Parkland school should be capped at $300,000 because the mass shooting --- which killed 17 students and staff members and injured 17 others --- was a single incident. But attorneys for families and victims contended that the shots were separate occurrences and that each plaintiff filing a claim against the school board should be able to receive $200,000.

A Broward County circuit judge ruled in favor of the school board, with the 4th District Court of Appeal then passing the case directly to the Supreme Court. An attorney for the school board said at the time of Supreme Court arguments last year that the board faced 33 legal complaints stemming from the shooting.

Under the Supreme Court decision, parents could receive damages exceeding the $300,000 overall cap but would need to convince the Legislature to pass what are known as “claim” bills. In such bills, the Legislature can direct government agencies to pay more than what is allowed under sovereign-immunity law.

The Broward case has been intertwined legally with the dispute from Palm Beach County, which involves allegations that the Department of Children and Families acted negligently before Patrick Dell shot his stepchildren in 2010. The fathers of Dell’s stepchildren filed lawsuits against the department, alleging, among other things, that it failed to inquire into earlier domestic-disturbance calls and a domestic-violence injunction that had been obtained by Dell’s estranged wife

The 4th District Court of Appeal said the Dell shooting was a single incident, rather than separate occurrences, placing a $200,000 limit on the amounts that the fathers, Michael Barnett and Leroy Nelson, Jr., could receive in their lawsuits against the department. The maximum cap was raised to $300,000 by the time of the Parkland shooting.

In upholding the appeals-court ruling Thursday in the Dell case, the Supreme Court dug into the meanings of “incident” and “occurrence” and how the sovereign immunity law was worded.

“The phrase ‘same incident or occurrence’ is most reasonably understood as referring to the criminal (more broadly, injury-causing) event as a whole, not to the smaller segments of time and action that make up the crime against each individual victim, because this is the way that we commonly talk about this type of tragic occurrence --- as a single event with multiple victims,” the ruling said. “Additionally, this reading fits most naturally given the context of (of a subsection of the law), which is designed to limit the state’s liability to a set amount for all claims arising out of an ‘incident or occurrence,’ after which all claimants must seek additional compensation from the Legislature.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.