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Often, a victim's last hope rides on state claims bill

When the state is found negligent, it is protected from having to pay large amounts sometimes awarded by juries. Only the Legislature can override that.

By CURTIS KRUEGER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 30, 2001


When the state is found negligent, it is protected from having to pay large amounts sometimes awarded by juries. Only the Legislature can override that.

TALLAHASSEE -- She is a grown woman with the mental power of a 2-year-old because she was born with cerebral palsy.

At age 29, she cannot speak. But her story of abuse in a state-licensed home is so powerful that when a committee of legislators heard it recently, they unanimously agreed a jury was right to award her family $8-million.

Whether her family ever sees the money remains in question. And some fear that her family and a small group of others who have successfully sued state and local governments may have difficulty collecting their full awards, because of the Legislature's budget woes.

In the case of the woman with cerebral palsy, at age 10 she moved into a South Florida group home that was under contract with the state. She was physically abused there and moved to another home licensed by the state, in St. Lucie County. But even at the new home, a state report says, she suffered "multiple incidents of abuse and neglect," that left her bruised, blistered, scratched and burned.

In 1991, it got worse. She became pregnant. The son of the group home owner, who was not supposed to be on the premises, was charged with sexual battery. The Times is withholding her name because of the nature of the case.

Although she was diagnosed as pregnant on Dec. 17, 1991, she received no medical treatment until Jan. 27 -- and her parents did not learn of her pregnancy until then. Because of health problems related to the pregnancy, a court ordered a "therapeutic" abortion.

"I can't tell you the horrible things that happened to this girl," said Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunellon.

Her family sued the state in 1995. Like homeowners or big businesses, governments can be held liable when they are negligent. But governments have a legal principle on their side called "sovereign immunity," which limits the amount of money they must pay.

In the case of the woman with cerebral palsy, her family received $400,000, or $100,000 for each case of abuse and neglect found by the jury. How does the family get the rest of the money? It can only happen if the Legislature, moved by how badly the woman suffered while under state supervision, agrees to pass a "claims bill."

Argenziano sponsored such a bill, saying the family, which lives in North Florida, needs the money to pay for the woman's care.

Argenziano said she has heard that similar bills may have a tough time getting through the House this year, because lawmakers are grappling with a tight budget. More than 50 claims bills have been filed this year, but most have not yet passed as the legislative session nears its end.

Even in good budget years, claims bills are not guaranteed passage. But this year is especially tough.

"I think it's going to be very difficult to pass anything that involves state money," said Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, the Senate sponsor of the bill for the woman with cerebral palsy. He guessed its chances of passing were less than 25 percent. It has passed various committees, but has not received a vote in either the full House or Senate.

"I guess what you've got to look at is the issue of fairness and justice, and this case cries out for justice," Campbell said.

A legislative staffer who reviewed the case recommended paying $2.6-million to the family instead of the full jury award.

Several other cases are pending in the Legislature, and some have even smaller chances than hers.

A case involving family members of Wieslaw Skowronek has not yet received a vote in the full House or Senate. He was a 44-year-old man who was kneed by a Clearwater police officer so hard that his pancreas was torn, and he died less than an hour later. He had gotten into a scuffle with police in 1997 at the site of a building that has an image on windows that many say resembles the Virgin Mary.

The city of Clearwater agreed to a settlement of $525,000, but $200,000 of it would only be paid if the Legislature agrees to the claims bill for Skowronek.

Another case involves the actions of Anthony Neal Washington, who raped one woman and murdered another in 1999 while he was supposed to be walking back and forth from his job and a work-release center in Largo. Attorneys for the victim argued that Washington, who had been arrested 18 times for 31 offenses, should have been under much stricter control.

But a legislative staffer recommended against the bill and noted that the state was found not liable in a civil trial.

Argenziano said she still has hopes for her bill. If it fails to pass, "I would be very, very depressed over that. All I can say is I would have to try again."

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