Lawmakers consider Parkland victims fund
Money could only be accessed if families agreed not to sue agencies
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.
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.