Miami Herald: Broward School Board’s liability in Parkland shooting heads to state’s high court

Posted on November 20, 2019


The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in the dispute over how much the Broward County School Board can be forced to pay to parents and victims of last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The court is being asked to determine if the mass shooting was a “single incident occurrence” or whether each shot that produced a separate injury was a “separate incident occurrence.”

A lower court has ruled the mass shooting was a single incident, capping the amount the school board can be forced to pay at $300,000 under the state’s sovereign-immunity law.

But the ruling is being challenged by Fred Guttenberg, father of victim Jaime Guttenberg, and the families of other victims.

They argue that the surviving gunshot victims, and the families of the 17 staff members and students killed, should be entitled to an amount of $200,000 per victim.

“The incident or occurrence are the roots that give rise to claims,’’ argued Stephen Rosenthal, lawyer for the Parkland parents. “The branches of the tree are the claims. The key question is, what do they arise from — are they different incidents?”

Broward School Board attorney Eugene Pettis argued that “we had a nightmare of six minutes” but the incident was “a contiguous action that occurred.”

He said the families are misreading the statute and instead should go to court and get a verdict against the school board, then go to the Legislature and file a claim bill to exceed the amount of the cap in the law.

“This is an issue of one occurrence. One incident,’’ he said. “This all happened with a matter of a few minutes.”

Under the concept of sovereign immunity, a government entity agrees to be sued in exchange for a limit on payments it can make in damages. Claim bills, however, are legislative mandates to government agencies to pay an amount in excess of the statutory cap under sovereign immunity, but they are notoriously difficult to get passed through the legislative process.

On Wednesday, the court also heard similar claims about how much money the Florida Department of Children and Families must pay because of a 2010 murder case.

That case stems from a lawsuit brought by the fathers of the stepchildren of Palm Beach County resident Patrick Dell who fatally shot four of his stepchildren and injured one. Dell also killed his wife, Natasha, and fatally shot himself.

The families of the children are suing DCF for negligence, claiming it had investigated an incident in 2009 in which Patrick Dell was alleged to have threatened his wife with a knife and made threats to the entire family.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that because of the state’s sovereign immunity law, the agency should be limited to paying a total of $200,000 for all the negligence claims.

But the lawyers for the families argued that they are misinterpreting the Legislature’s intent when it rewrote the statute in 1973. They argue that the $200,000 cap should apply to each child because the agency’s negligence of each child was unique and different.

Rulings in both cases are expected to be completed later this year.