Broward County

State Supreme Court to hear arguments over financial liability in Parkland shooting

The Florida Supreme Court said Friday it will hear arguments in a dispute about how much the Broward County School Board could be forced to pay to parents and victims in last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Justices issued a unanimous order saying they will take up the case and will hold oral arguments Aug. 28. They also scheduled arguments that day in a case against the Florida Department of Children and Families that raises similar liability questions.

The issue centers on the state’s sovereign-immunity law, which limits how much government agencies can be forced to pay in lawsuits, and how the liability limits should apply when multiple people are killed or injured in incidents.

The Broward County School Board has argued that the sovereign-immunity law caps at $300,000 its potential liability to the parents and victims in the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at the Parkland high school. The dispute involves whether that $300,000 limit should be an overall total because the mass shooting was a single incident — or whether each plaintiff filing a claim against the school board should be able to receive $200,000 because the shots were separate occurrences.

In a filing last year in Broward County circuit court, an attorney for Laura Menescal, whose daughter Daniela was injured in the Parkland school shooting, argued that each shot should be considered separately.

“The petitioner’s position is that the ‘one occurrence’ under the facts of this shooting refers to each separate shot that resulted in a separate injury to a separate victim,” the filing said. “Each shot constitutes a separate occurrence and the petitioner’s child, Daniela Menescal, and the other victims of the gunshots should be entitled to an amount of $200,000 to each gunshot victim and not $300,000 for all of the gunshot victims.”

But the School Board disputed that argument in a later filing. The mass shooting killed 17 students and faculty members and injured numerous others.

“The School Board recognizes that a separate claim exists for each person who was injured or killed in this tragic incident, but respectfully submits that the aggregate cap must apply to limit the School Board’s total exposure for this horrific event,” the board’s attorneys wrote.

Under the School Board’s position, the only way the parents could receive damages exceeding the $300,000 overall cap would be to convince the Legislature to pass what is known as a “claim” bill. In such bills, the Legislature can direct government agencies to pay more than what is allowed under sovereign-immunity law.

A Broward County circuit judge in December ruled in favor of the School Board, prompting attorneys for Parkland parents and victims to appeal. The Fourth District Court of Appeal in March said the case should go straight to the Supreme Court, a move known as certifying the appeal.

The South Florida appellate court said the issues are “of great public importance or will have a great effect on the proper administration of justice throughout the state.” With the order Friday, the Supreme Court accepted the case.

In the December ruling, the Broward County circuit judge cited a Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling in a case that alleges the Florida Department of Children and Families acted negligently before Palm Beach County resident Patrick Dell in 2010 fatally shot four of his stepchildren and injured one.

The fathers of Dell’s stepchildren filed the lawsuit against the Department of Children and Families, but the appellate court said the shooting was a single incident, rather than separate occurrences. That is the other case the Supreme Court scheduled to be heard Aug. 28.

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