A man who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and the brain-damaged and paralyzed victim of a crash with a speeding sheriff’s deputy who was late for work would receive millions in compensation through claims bills that cleared the Florida Senate shortly after the Legislature opened its 2012 session Tuesday.
The bill (SB 4) for Eric Brody, who was 18 when the collision occurred in 1998, passed 37-2 minutes after the sponsor, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, announced a $10.75 million settlement with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office’s insurer just before the vote. The bill then was reduced to that figure from its original $12.5 million.
The other measure (SB 2) will pay $1.35 million to William Dillon, who was cleared of the Brevard County murder charge through DNA testing and released from prison in 2008. It passed 39-1.
Each now goes to the House. Both are top priorities of Senate President Mike Haridopolos. Similar measures passed in the Senate last year, but neither got a roll call in the House.
Brody and his parents were in the House gallery as time expired late on the final night of last year’s 60-day session. They were unable to make it back to Tallahassee from their Sunrise home on Tuesday because Eric is recovering from surgery to repair a fractured hip he suffered in a fall.
“Eric’s fall is a direct result of the brain injuries he suffered from the automobile collision he survived almost 14 years ago,” wrote Chuck Brody, Eric’s father, in a letter to Haridopolos. “His balance and lack of muscle tone make him extremely vulnerable to falls whenever he tries to move from his wheelchair or his walker to his bed, a chair, or the bathroom.”
The elder Brody thanked Haridopolos and other senators in the letter.
A jury had awarded Eric Brody $30.6 million but state law then limited compensation to victims of government negligence to $100,000 per person without approval of the Legislature. The limit was lifted to $200,000 last year.
Ranger Insurance Co., which covered the sheriff’s office, had opposed not only the full verdict but the smaller $12.5 million award in Benacquisto’s bill. Both sides hired lawyers and lobbyists. Ranger offered to settle for $8.5 million, but the Brody’s and their lawyer, Lance Block, said that wouldn’t be enough to provide therapy and the kind of round-the-clock care that Eric, now 32, will need for the rest of his life.
“Look, I would have rather had seen Eric get more,” Block said. “Eric deserves more, however, this will provide what Eric needs for the rest of his life.”
Block also noted “taxpayers will not pay a cent of this.” The settlement and the bill limit legal and lobbying fees that can be paid from the award to 25 percent.
“We’ve been the settling party all along,” said Peter Antonacci, a lawyer for Ranger. He cited pressure on both sides to resolve the matter from Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, said the case was all about the “determination of a mother and a father to take care of their child who was injured.”
Cannon said he expected the House to consider both bills later in the session but reiterated his view that claims bills are “tertiary” to more important matters lawmakers must deal with such as the budget and redistricting.
Haridopolos personally sponsored Dillon’s bill.
“You can never place a price tag on freedom, but I think the steps we’re making today will at least show that when you make a mistake you own up to it and make it right,” Haridopolos said.
State law allows for compensation of wrongly convicted people without legislative action, but Dillon did not qualify because he had a prior drug conviction. He now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., and works as a singer-musician. He recently released a CD titled “Black Robes and Lawyers.”
Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Gainesville Republican and retired sheriff, voted against both bills. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, voted against the Brody bill. Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, did not cast a vote on the Brody bill.
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