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The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a dispute about how the state’s sovereign immunity law should be applied in a case filed against the School Board of Broward County by parents and victims of the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The case considers whether the shooting, which killed 17 students and staff and resulted in numerous injuries, was a single occurrence or whether each shot that produced a separate injury was a separate occurrence.
At issue is Florida’s sovereign immunity law, which limits how much government agencies must pay out in lawsuits, and how the liability limits should apply when multiple people are killed or injured in incidents.
Under the state’s law, the liability of government agencies is capped at $200,000 per person or $300,000 per occurrence.
The Broward County School Board has argued that the incident was a single occurrence and its sovereign immunity limits financial recovery for the victims, but attorneys representing parents of the victims say that each plaintiff filing a claim should receive $200,000 because the shots were separate occurrences.
For government agencies to pay in excess of the $300,000 sovereign immunity cap, the Florida Legislature would need to pass a so-called claims bill, according to attorneys for the school board.
In December 2018, a Broward County circuit judge ruled in favor of the school board, but parents of the victims filed an appeal, and in March 2019, Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach said the case requires immediate resolution by the Florida Supreme Court.
This case has broader implications than the issue of sovereign immunity, according to Robert Horkovich, managing shareholder at Anderson Kill P.C. in New York and co-chair of the firm’s insurance recovery group.
“This occurrence issue is very important. It has been and continues to be and will continue to be the subject of numerous cases, disputes, decisions and numerous discussions,” said Mr. Horkovich.
“The bottom line is that the court should apply a rule or definition that would maximize coverage in terms of whether it’s one occurrence per bullet, or one occurrence per victim, or one occurrence for the entire episode, or one occurrence for all mass shootings in the U.S. in 2019,” he said.
“The rule the court should apply is what maximizes coverage, because there is no easy answer in the insurance policy,” he said.
The Broward County school board office did not immediately respond to requests for information on its insurance coverage, but government agencies typically self-insure and may buy excess liability insurance coverage.
The Florida justices also heard arguments Wednesday in another case involving sovereign immunity limits against the Florida Department of Children and Families.
The recent mass shooting at a Florida high school has sparked talk of increased security, but safety experts advise that the focus should be on prevention.