Amie Stephenson sued the State of Florida in May 2001 for negligence in the wrongful death of her husband after he was killed in an accident on the Hart Bridge Expressway in Jacksonville. Christian Stephenson had been driving a gasoline tanker that jack-knifed when he swerved to avoid two cars that had crashed after hitting a pool of standing water. Stephenson was killed when his truck overturned and burst into flames, leaving behind his pregnant widow and a two-year-old daughter.
His wife filed a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against the Department of Transportation. She charged that the state was negligent for not fixing the clogged drain that led to flooding on the expressway. In 2005, a jury awarded her $1.3 million dollars.
State Law Slows Negligence Payments
That’s when the 16 year wait began. It turns out that suing the state government and winning was the easy part. The state has a time-honored method to delay and avoid settlement payouts. The government protects itself from the kind of justice it enforces on the rest of us. They rely on an archaic legal concept called “sovereign immunity.”
“Basically, after suing the offending agency or working out a settlement with the at-fault government, you can get your legislator to file a ‘claims bill’ – then wait for years until the Florida Legislature deigns to consider your case and, possibly, make amends,” says Bill Cotterell in a column for Tallahassee Democrat.
Since the “sovereign immunity” bill limits state payouts to $200,000, the Stephenson family had to get a state legislator to file a claim bill to recover the rest of her negligence compensation. The family filed their first claim bill in 2007, but the legislature didn’t get around to looking at it. So they refiled the next year, and the next. The family had to get a lobbyist to keep filing the bill every year. He worked to push the legislature into approving it.
The Stephenson bill was one of 11 claim bills that Governor Rick Scott signed last month.