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Courts Sometimes Aren’t Certain About the Sovereign Immunity Damage Cap


There are laws that, even after having been on the books for a long time, are still subject to judicial interpretation. A case in point involved the law in which a governmental agency causes someone to be injured.

“Sovereign Immunity”

“Sovereign immunity” is a concept that bars individuals from suing the state; however, many jurisdictions, including Florida, provide a waiver in certain tort actions – with limitations.

One such waiver is a cap on the amount of damages that can be obtained by victims who are injured by state personnel. The cap is $200,000 per person, and $300,000 per claim–that is, per incident or occurrence. The state does not have to pay any amounts awarded by a jury above those caps, unless a bill is introduced and passed in the Florida Legislature for the excess judgment.

What is an Occurrence?

Issues have arisen as to the definition of what constitutes an “occurrence” or “incident.”

For example, if two people are injured when a city negligently allowed exposed power lines that electrocuted the victims, does that tragic event constitute one occurrence or incident (which would limit the total available recovery for both victims to $300,000 total), or does that constitute two, separate causes of action (which would allow $200,000 per victim)?

Florida courts are divided on the definition of an incident or occurrence. In a recent case, a family sued the Florida Department of Children and Family (DCF) for negligently allowing five children to be in a home with a man that eventually murdered them.

DCF was found negligent, but the issue was whether DCF’s negligence was one incident, or whether the death of each child was a separate incident.

The court held that DCF’s negligence would have to be considered one incident, thus limiting the deceased relatives’ recovery to $300,000 under the sovereign immunity statute.

To hold otherwise, the court reasoned, would mean that any time more than one person was injured in an accident involving the state, the state’s cap on damages “per incident” would be rendered meaningless. In other words, if ten people were injured in one incident, the recovery would be $2,000,000 (10x$200,000), rather than $300,000. On the other hand, how can it possibly be fair to divide a cap of $300,000 amongst 10 victims of negligence, assault, ever murder?

Because there is a dispute among Florida’s appellate courts on this issue, the question has been certified to the Florida Supreme Court, which has not yet rendered a decision.

A Note on Noticing Governmental Entities 

When filing a lawsuit of any kind, you must put the party involved on notice of your claim, in writing, and serve the entity with your lawsuit both within the four-year Statute of Limitations (SOL). However, this requirement is more stringent when governmental agencies are involved.

When you are suing a governmental entity, you also must notice and serve the Department of Financial Services within three years of the incident, and file a lawsuit within 4 years.

Were you injured due to the negligence of a state or government agency? Contact the West Palm Beach personal injury lawyers at the Celeste Law Firm today to discuss compensation for your injuries.




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