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John Hopkins

Justice Can Be Evasive — Dontrell Stephens and a Claims Bill

» Written by // February 15, 2016 // ,


A young man permanently confined to a wheel chair for the rest of his life.

No more bicycle riding.

No more dancing.

No more walking down the street to a friend’s house.

No more of anything you and I would call living.

Dontrell Stephens was shot four times by a deputy of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department soon after he got off his bike because a deputy stopped him for riding across a roadway.

  • He was told to stop by the officer and he stopped.
  • He was told to raise his hands by the officer and he raised his hands.
  • The deputy sheriff shot him (4) times in (4) seconds without Dontrell Stephens doing anything wrong.
  • Those are the facts.

What caused this deputy to choose firing his revolver instead of his Taser; firing his gun (4) times rather than ducking behind a car door if he felt the need? What caused this officer to resort to force rather than mediation? We may never know the whole story. We know Dontrell Stephens will live in a wheelchair for however long he is able to stay alive.

People suffering paralysis develop other problems because of their paralysis: infections, skin ulcers and several other serious, life threatening complications. And that happens with the best of care. Think of Christopher Reeves – top notch medical care and he stilled died of infected decubitus ulcers.

This young man is tragically paralyzed and left to a system not prepared to help him with medical care or simple living facilities.

Dontrell Stephens has a verdict from a federal jury for over $23 million. What does that get him?

Nothing. Actually less than nothing because he now has an uphill battle against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department who are expected to appeal the verdict. Because there is basis for appeal? No. Because it lets them delay and slow down the system.

The case will be required to go to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals before Mr. Stephens can begin the tough process of trying to pass a claims bill through the Florida legislature for payment.  A claims bill is necessary for a victim of governmental wrongdoing in Florida to recover more than $200,000.  The claims bill process gives politicians full control over whether, and how much, to pay the victims, who, like Dontrell Stephens, often have incurred enormous medical bills and life-altering injuries.

Many people have tried to describe the claims bill system in Florida:

“The claims process in Florida government, intended to counteract the old legal doctrine that “the king can do no wrong” and compensate people who are injured by state or local government actions, is neither fair nor reliable. Everyone knows it, but nobody ever tries to come up with a better system because they don’t have to. It’s a cruel crap shoot. But in a fair dice game, at least the outcome depends on blind, dumb luck.”

“The King can do no wrong” is an outmoded, antiquated principle in these days of insurance for everything. Heck you can even buy insurance for your pet’s health. Nothing prevents a sovereign from purchasing insurance to cover their negligence, except one principle. The Florida legislature’s history for passing claims bills is horrific and has nothing to do with justice or need. The claims bill process has a great deal to do with politics and political favors.

What has happened in the last several years to claims bills and how many actually make it to some payment:

Year Claims Bills Submitted Claims Bills Passed
2000 19 10
2001 43 2
2002 40 24
2003 31 12
2004 24 6
2005 21 1
2006 27 0
2007 35 13
2008 31 6
2009 31 5
2010 31 6
2011 41 3
2012 33 10
2013 25 0
2014 28 0
2015 32 14
Totals 492 112

 

In the last 15 years, less than one-quarter of the claims bills filed have been passed.  The government has denied 380 people the justice that was determined for them by a jury. The government has successfully caused some percentage of those 380 people to turn to social programs to pay their medical costs, instead of the at fault party paying their responsibility. Even when a claims bill has been passed, it has hardly resulted in full and just compensation: the government only approved an average of 19% of the jury verdicts to be awarded to the injured people.

Fact is the “King” (the governmental agency) now sees the claims bill process as a way of starving out or thinning out claimants. The “King” relies on legislators who will roadblock and kill perfectly just, perfectly appropriate claims bills hoping the injured or wronged person will not physically make it to see any payment. Or, delay a person’s payment of a judgment long enough they are desperate and anything, any meager payment becomes a God send and they will not make a stink about it.

To further run up costs for the injured person, the legislature will not accept the jury’s verdict. They require the injured person conduct a mini-trial in front of members of the House and then members of the Senate. Members of the House can reduce the amount and members of the Senate can reduce the amount of the claims bill, regardless of the jury’s verdict.

The wronged person must have a legislator willing to sponsor the bill and the Speaker of the House and the Senate must allow that bill into committees for vote and agree to send it to the floor of both bodies for a vote. During this complex process the bill can be killed and never sent out for a floor vote. That means the injured person is further delayed until the next legislative session when the entire process starts all over again. This theater can be repeatedly played out for years and, sadly, often is.

So, even with a jury providing adequately for Mr. Stephens, Florida law will not cooperate.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff is protected by “sovereign immunity” and, although a jury awarded $23 million, Sheriff Bradshaw may refuse to pay anything more than $200,000. Even this minimal amount will be withheld until the case winds through the endless appeals the Sheriff will undoubtedly take.

After the appeal process, Mr. Stephens and his lawyers must plead their case to the legislature to pass a claims bill; perhaps the most difficult battle the young man has faced. That process assumes a time line controlled entirely by elected legislators and the party in control at the time. Recent legislatures have demonstrated they will turn a blind eye to those paralyzed, killed, and improperly jailed by “sovereign officials”. Recent legislators have publicly decried claims bills and believe that if you are minding your own business and are shot by law enforcement, you are just one of the unfortunate statistics.

Dontrell Stephens’ ability to live a reasonable life, receive decent medical care and possibly to simply survive will rely on the kindness of strangers. It will be legislators who have never met him and have their own motivations who will have to look within themselves to find their humanity and do the right thing for him.


West Palm Beach

Searcy Denney 2139 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd.
West Palm Beach, FL 33409-6601
Toll-free: (800) 780-8607
Phone: (561) 686-6300
En Espanol: (800) 220-7006

Tallahassee

Searcy Denney The Towle House, 517 N. Calhoun St.
Tallahassee, FL 32301-1231
Toll-free: (888) 549-7011
Phone: (850) 224-7600
En Espanol: (800) 220-7006


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