Mark Roman | October 1, 2020 | news
Last week, the Florida Supreme Court severely limited the damages claims of victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. The court decided “sovereign immunity,” the government’s legal protection from liability, effectively capped the recovery for the families at $300,000 for everyone. The court got there via some sleight of hand. It was almost as if it was too ashamed to speak plainly about its ruling.
In a separate case against the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), the court confronted a case in which a disturbed man went into a home and killed his wife and four of her children. Because the state’s liability is limited to $300,000 for all claims arising from each “incident or occurrence,” the court had to decide whether there was one occurrence (the shooter’s spree within the home) or several (each time the shooter shot someone).
Ultimately, the court decided the killing spree was one occurrence rather than multiple. In doing so, it adopted the narrowest possible definition of an occurrence or event. This conveniently limited DCF’s legal liability for all of the claims arising from the tragedy. That is because, again, $300,000 is the aggregate limit of the state’s liability for each occurrence.
Then the court turned to the Parkland case concerning Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. In a remarkably short opinion, which did not even discuss the school shooting, the court adopted its analysis from the DCF case. Thus, without explicitly saying so, the court decided the mass shooting at the school was really just one event or legal “occurrence.” It reached this conclusion despite the fact that the shooter killed 17 people and injured many others in distinct shootings that occurred separately in time and space.
The court could have just as easily adopted a perspective based on criminal law: Each shooting constituted a separate crime for which the shooter could be charged. It could have also looked to insurance law in which multiple shootings are often treated as separate occurrences under an insurance policy. In other words, there was ample precedent for treating each shooting as an occurrence. It would not have stretched the ordinary meaning of “occurrence” to do so.
Instead, it took a remarkably stingy, crimped view of what happened. This severely capped the Broward School Board’s potential liability for the families of the 17 people killed and the many others who were injured in the most horrendous school shooting in Florida’s history.
There are some situations in which legal precedents are clear and long-standing. Courts are compelled to follow them to ensure stability in the law, even when it leads to unfortunate outcomes. This was not one of them. Again, it would not have been a stretch for the court to go the other way. The choice the court made in analyzing this tragic situation tells us a lot about its priorities.
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