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    Bush tries to focus claims bills on victims

    The bills, necessary for claims exceeding $200,000, too often enrich lawyers and lobbyists, the governor said.

    By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 30, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - In 1999 a school bus driver ran a stop sign at a busy intersection in Indian River County, hit a semitrailer truck, spun around and hit a utility pole.

    The bus driver, Deborah Colletti, was thrown through the windshield and injured. The truck driver, Sammie Lee Hughes, was killed when he hit his windshield. A student aboard the school bus, Victor Dixon Jr., also died.

    Now several of the injured children aboard the bus and the children of the dead truck driver have turned to the Florida Legislature for help.

    The Indian River School Board has agreed to pay the victims, but first the Legislature and governor must approve so-called claims bills.

    Getting claims bills approved is a cumbersome process that can take years and often involves lawyers and lobbyists who take a cut. Such bills are required for any claim exceeding $200,000.

    State law limits what lawyers are paid to 25 percent of the awarded claim, but in recent years lobbyists have taken a separate bite, leaving the victims and their families with less money.

    Now, Gov. Jeb Bush has warned legislators that he will reject any claims bill in which the victims and families get less than 75 percent of the total award.

    In a letter earlier this month, Bush warned Senate President Jim King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd that many of the claims bills pending this year would violate that rule.

    They include a claim filed by the family of 7-year-old Amanda Johnson.

    A passenger on Colletti's bus, Amanda was hospitalized with a broken leg and other injuries. She was left with one leg about an inch shorter than the other. Her parents, Virginia and Charles Johnson, have spent more than $88,000 on medical bills and expect to pay another $40,000.

    A year after the accident, the Johnsons sued the school district, eventually settling for $287,000. The family received about $30,000 from a School Board insurance policy and another $12,000 from their own insurance carrier, but the school district already had paid out the $200,000 limit government agencies are liable for in Florida.

    The money owed to lawyers and lobbyists on the Johnsons' bill equals about 33 percent of the total settlement. Bush calls that excessive.

    About 70 claims bills were filed this year, including some for other victims in the bus accident. Claims related to the Indian River accident total more than $600,000.

    Claims bills can drag on for years as victims of traffic accidents, falling road signs or medical malpractice attempt to collect damages awarded by juries or agreed to in settlements.

    Sometimes the costs associated with the trial and lobbying fees exceed the amount of money going to the victim. To Bush, that is unacceptable.

    The law limiting legal fees says nothing about lobbying fees. So the governor set his own criteria, forcing lawyers to use their 25 percent of the award to pay the lobbyists.

    "State payments should be focused towards the victims and their families, not enterprising third parties," Bush said.

    Lobbyists attempting to pass the bills say they are uncertain what they will do to settle up with victims if their bills are approved.

    Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who is sponsoring several claims bills, said he will leave it to the lawyers and lobbyists to divide up the 25 percent. "I just want to make sure the families are taken care of," he said.


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    Lucy Morgan

    From the Times state desk