In its recent judgment, the Florida Supreme Court put an end to a debate regarding multiple claims of injury brought against the State by multiple parties, arising from one injury-causing event. It held that the state liability in such an event is limited at $300,000 for all the injuries and deaths resulting from the event, as opposed to $300,000 for each individual victim.
As per the facts of the case, in January 2010, a man was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and criminal mischief, as he had threatened his estranged wife and slashed her car’s tires. The Department of Children and Families (“DCF”), thereby, conducted an investigation, but closed the case concluding that the children were not at a significant risk of harm from the man. However, few months later, in September 2010, the man shot the wife in her residence, and also her four children, and severely wounded the fifth one. Thereby, a suit was filed by representatives of the children against DCF, alleging wrongful death and negligence. DCF put forth the argument that Florida’s limited waiver of sovereign immunity limited the aggregate recovery available to the Plaintiffs to $200,000. The trial court held that each claim was a separate incident and thereby each child was entitled to recover $200,000. However, the Fourth DCA reversed the trial court judgment and ruled that case against DCF involving a single claim of negligence against DCF in the failure to properly investigate the family and the stepfather before closing its file. Thus each estate’s claim and the claim of the injured child arose from the same incident of negligence of DCF. Therefore, the $200,000 cap per incident or occurrence was applied to limit recovery for all claims.
Plaintiffs went ahead with appeal before the Florida Supreme Court. With reference to the phrase, “arising out of the same incident or occurrence”, DCF contended that this phrase referred to the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of its employees, and thus the sovereign immunity cap applied to children’s claims. On the other hand, plaintiffs argued that the phrase referred to the actual shooting. The Supreme Court agreed with plaintiffs’ argument. It stated that to consider “negligent or wrongful act or omission” and “incident or occurrence” as same, would negate the legislature’s decision to use different phrases in different parts of Section 768.28.
Also, the words ‘incident’ and ‘occurrence’ in a reasonable sense would include the incident in which the damage was inflicted, and not the point where the defendant’s negligence or omission occurred. Lastly, the relevant statutory phrase is “claim or judgment arising out of the same incident or occurrence”, refers to the incident wherein the injury was caused, and not the negligent omissions that allegedly gave rise to that event. However, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal as it did not agree with the contention of the Plaintiff, that each shooting of each claimant constitute a separate incident or occurrence. The Supreme Court states that plain understanding of the phrase “same incident or occurrence” referred to the complete entire event, and not different parts of the event.
The ruling of the Florida Supreme Court would be applicable to torts and would affect public entities, including schools, public colleges and universities. It would also be relevant in other suits against the State agencies or subdivisions which includes injuries or killing of multiple people in a single event, such as mass shooting. In such cases, the Court’s understanding that statutory cap in linked to offender’s tortious or criminal act would be applied. Therefore, the claims would likely be capped at $300,000. Thus, the ruling of the Florida Supreme Court in this case would have far-reaching implications.