Parkland parents seek to weigh in on state liability

The parents of 18 victims in last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are seeking to play a role in a Florida Supreme Court case about government liability for alleged negligence.

Attorneys for the parents filed a notice late Tuesday asking permission to file a friend-of-the-court brief if the Supreme Court takes up the case, which stems from the 2010 shooting deaths of four children in Palm Beach County.

The notice indicates the Marjory Stoneman Douglas parents want to support the arguments of the plaintiffs in the Palm Beach County case. That case alleges negligence by the Florida Department of Children Families before Palm Beach County resident Patrick Dell in 2010 fatally shot four of his stepchildren and injured one.

The legal issues in the case involve the extent of the Department of Children and Families’ potential liability under state sovereign-immunity law. The 4th District Court of Appeal has sided with the department’s arguments but also urged the Supreme Court to resolve the issues --- a move by the appeals court known as certifying a question of “great public importance” to the Supreme Court.

While the Supreme Court has not decided whether to take up the case, the notice filed late Tuesday indicates the outcome could affect claims made by parents of the victims of the Feb. 14 shooting at the Parkland high school. The notice also said the 4th District Court of Appeal appeared to be anticipating such claims in asking the Supreme Court to resolve the Palm Beach County case.

“The Fourth District Court of Appeal’s opinion certifying the question to this (Supreme) Court seems to have had the Parkland parents prominently in mind,” the notice said. “They have had the collective misfortune of having been touched indelibly by one the ‘high-profile mass shootings’ the (appeals) court referenced and have filed, or given notice of their intent to file, ‘negligence complaints against state agencies.’ The Parkland parents therefore have a direct interest in the question presented.”

The notice was filed by attorneys who represent parents of students who died or were injured in the shooting. In all, 17 students and faculty members were killed in the massacre.

In the Palm Beach County case, the fathers of Dell’s stepchildren filed the lawsuit alleging negligence by the Department of Children and Families, which had investigated an incident in 2009 in which Dell was accused of threatening his wife with a knife and making threats to the entire family.

The state’s sovereign-immunity law is designed to shield government agencies from large judgments. The sovereign-immunity law that applies to the Dell shootings limited to $200,000 the amount of liability for all claims or judgments “arising out of the same incident or occurrence.”

But the legal dispute centers on whether that $200,000 limit should apply as an overall total to the claims against DCF or whether each claim should be capped at $200,000. A Palm Beach County circuit judge ruled that each claim would be eligible for as much as $200,000, but the appeals court overturned that decision, saying the $200,000 cap “applies to limit recovery for all claims.”