Law­mak­ers con­sider Park­land vic­tims fund

Money could only be ac­cessed if fam­i­lies agreed not to sue agen­cies

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Skyler Swisher

Fac­ing a moun­tain of pos­si­ble lit­i­ga­tion, Florida law­mak­ers could take the un­prece­dented step of cre­at­ing a $160 mil­lion fund to pay the fam­i­lies of the 34 peo­ple killed or in­jured in the dead­li­est school shoot­ing in the state’s his­tory.

The bills to cre­ate com­pen­sa­tion funds in­clude an ad­mis­sion that “mul­ti­ple fail­ures at var­i­ous lev­els of gov­ern­ment” cul­mi­nated in the mass shoot­ing and con­trib­uted to its mag­ni­tude.

Fam­i­lies of the 17 killed and 17 wounded at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, could ac­cess the funds only if they agree not to sue the state or its agen­cies.

Cre­at­ing such a large tax­payer­backed fund would be an ex­tra­or­di­nary act, said Ken­neth Fein­berg, who ad­min­is­tered funds for 9/11, the Pulse night­club shoot­ing and other na­tional tragedies.

“You can find many in­no­cent vic­tims in Florida who say gov­ern­ment failed,” Fein­berg said. “It’s a slip­pery slope when you de­cide gov­ern­ment will step up and com­pen­sate only cer­tain vic­tims.”

He could think of only two ex­am­ples where funds were cre­ated us­ing pub­lic dol­lars to pay vic­tims of a na­tional tragedy — the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks and the com­pen­sa­tion pro­vided to more than 100,000 Ja­pa­nese Amer­i­cans who were in­car­cer­ated in

in­tern­ment camps dur­ing World War II. Both in­volved the al­lo­ca­tion of fed­eral money by Congress.

Fred Gut­ten­berg, whose

14-year-old daugh­ter Jaime was killed in the Park­land shoot­ing, said mak­ing the state pay for its mis­takes is one way to en­sure sim­i­lar lapses don’t hap­pen in the fu­ture. Those fail­ures have been well doc­u­mented. The FBI and the Broward Sher­iff ’s Of­fice bun­gled tips. Deputies held back as gun­shots were fired. School of­fi­cials fum­bled lock-down pro­ce­dures

“There are a lot of ways to hold peo­ple ac­count­able and en­sure that peo­ple don’t ever for­get the re­al­ity of their fail­ure,” Gut­ten­berg said. “This is just one of those ways. If peo­ple want to try and make it that this is just about money, that is just their is­sue — not mine. My is­sue is I go home to an empty bed­room ev­ery day.”

But the bills also could give Park­land fam­i­lies pref­er­en­tial treat­ment over oth­ers who have been maimed or killed in lesser­known tragedies, Fein­berg said.

A process is al­ready in place for peo­ple hurt by gov­ern­men­tal neg­li­gence, but it’s of­ten lengthy, po­lit­i­cal and ar­bi­trary. And it’s capped.

Florida’s sov­er­eign im­mu­nity law lim­its the li­a­bil­ity of the state and its agen­cies to $200,000 for a sin­gle vic­tim and $300,000 for all vic­tims in the same in­ci­dent. Pay­ments above that amount can be au­tho­rized through a claim bill, but those bills can lan­guish for years in the Leg­is­la­ture.

Take for in­stance, John Pierre Kamel, who was shot and killed at the age of 13 by a class­mate out­side a Palm Beach County mid­dle school in 1997. A jury found in

2002 that the school sys­tem was neg­li­gent by not re­port­ing bul­ly­ing to Kamel’s par­ents and not sta­tion­ing a school re­source of­fi­cer out­side the school where the shoot­ing hap­pened.

The Leg­is­la­ture didn’t ap­prove the $360,000 owned to Kamel’s fam­ily un­til last year, more than two decades after the teenager was killed.

Claim bills pend­ing in the Leg­is­la­ture this year de­tail hor­rific in­ci­dents. A Mi­ami-Dade County teacher was at­tacked and raped in her class­room. A worker fell through a grate and drowned in sewage in a West Palm Beach plant that had un­ad­dressed safety vi­o­la­tions. One South Florida man

spent 38 years in prison for a crime he didn’t com­mit.

State Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hol­ly­wood, said he sup­ports cre­at­ing a vic­tims fund for the Park­land shoot­ing, but he also doesn’t want to for­get oth­ers who have been wait­ing years for money they are owed.

“I want to see those Park­land fam­i­lies get ev­ery dime they are de­serv­ing of, but it doesn’t change the fact there are other peo­ple de­serv­ing of that as well,” he said. “This is an ad­mis­sion that the claims process is rot­ten to the core and needs to be re­placed. It’s a per­ver­sion of jus­tice.”

The pro­posal by Sen. Lau­ren Book, D-Plan­ta­tion, would pro­vide $80 mil­lion to one fund for fam­ily mem­bers of peo­ple who died in the Park­land shoot­ing. An­other $80 mil­lion would be of­fered to the 17 who were

wounded. The Florida De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion would man­age the money.

The leg­is­la­tion does not spec­ify ex­actly how the money would be dis­trib­uted. The Florida at­tor­ney gen­eral would be re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing a for­mula, ac­cord­ing to one of the bills. State Rep. Kristin Ja­cobs, D-Co­conut Creek, filed a bill in De­cem­ber in the House that would cre­ate a $110 mil­lion fund for Park­land vic­tims.

The Se­nate bill de­fines vic­tim as a per­son who was “shot and wounded dur­ing the event,” so chil­dren who suf­fered emo­tional trauma would not be el­i­gi­ble for com­pen­sa­tion through the fund. At least 24 no­tices-to-sue have been sent on be­half of stu­dents who watched their friends die, who heard the gun­shots, bar­ri­caded them­selves in class­rooms and won­dered if they would ever

see home again.

One let­ter de­tailed how a stu­dent saw her friend “mur­dered be­fore her eyes” and used her jacket as a tourni­quet to slow the bleed­ing of an­other friend.

Park­land’s of­fi­cial pri­vate do­na­tion fund closed at the end of June and raised $10.5 mil­lion. At least $2.4 mil­lion has been raised through other do­na­tion funds. The state also of­fered to pay funeral ex­penses for Park­land vic­tims.

Pub­lic money was not al­lo­cated to cre­ate a vic­tims fund for the Pulse night­club shoot­ing in Or­lando, where 49 peo­ple were killed and 53 wounded in 2016. About $31 mil­lion was paid out of a pri­vate do­na­tion fund to help vic­tims.

Florida and other states have pro­grams to as­sist crime vic­tims. Fines and penal­ties — not tax dol­lars

— fi­nance the pro­grams. Dur­ing the 2016 fis­cal year, Florida paid out $7.9 mil­lion in vic­tim com­pen­sa­tion ex­penses. That pro­gram, too, can of­ten in­volve un­der­go­ing a lengthy, bu­reau­cratic process.

Se­nate Pres­i­dent Bill Gal­vano, R-Braden­ton, sup­ports the con­cept of con­sol­i­dat­ing claims from Park­land vic­tims into one bill, spokes­woman Katie Betta said.

Gal­vano has not said how much he would sup­port al­lo­cat­ing to vic­tims. Book, though, said she is com­mit­ted to get­ting the Park­land fam­i­lies the com­pen­sa­tion amount in her bills.

“We are tak­ing un­prece­dented ac­tion for an un­prece­dented tragedy — one that was, and is, hor­rific and pre­ventable,” she said.

GER­ALD HER­BERT/AP FILE

A makeshift memo­rial was built out­side Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land, days after 17 stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers were killed in a mass shoot­ing.

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