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Florida Court of Appeal Asks Florida Supreme Court to Rule on Attorneys’ Fees

In July, 2015 the 4th District Court of Appeal issued a decision in Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, P.A. v. State of Florida. In that case the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s determination that the attorneys that represented a plaintiff injured at birth that was awarded nearly $30 million were only entitled to statutory fees totaling $150,000. On September 25, 2015, the Florida Supreme Court was asked to review the decision, which will impact the public’s access to quality representation in injuries occurring in connection with public hospitals.

Background

In 2007, a Florida law firm represented a young boy who suffered a traumatic brain injury at birth as a result of the medical malpractice of the medical staff at Lee Memorial Hospital. The law firm invested substantial time and costs in the successful representation of the plaintiff and achieved an award of approximately $28 million for the injured child, and nearly $2.5 million for the child’s parents. Notwithstanding the the substantial jury award, because Lee Memorial Hospital was considered a special district of the State of Florida, damages were limited by Florida’s sovereign immunity statute and therefore reduced to $200,000, 25% of which is allowed for attorney’s fees ($50,000).

Florida’s Sovereign Immunity Statute

Sovereign immunity is a long-standing legal principle that provides that the government cannot be sued for its acts or omissions without its permission and willingness to accept liability. Florida’s sovereign immunity statute codifies the State of Florida’s limited waiver that allows those harmed by state agencies and subdivisions, and their employees, to sue for recovery of damages. Generally, the statute limits the liability of the state on a single claim to $200,000, regardless of the amount awarded by a jury. Under the statute, attorneys are limited to receiving fees in the amount of 25% of the judgment or settlement. Where plaintiffs are awarded damages in excess of the the $200,000 cap, they may petition the Florida legislature for special relief and additional payment as the legislature determines just.

Issues to be Decided

The law firm in this case successfully petitioned the Florida legislature for a private relief act that awarded the plaintiff, excluding his parents, and additional $15 million; however, the measure only provided an additional $100,000 for attorneys’ fees. Between the limited amount received as a result of the judgment, and the limited amount received by the private relief act, the law firm was entitled to about $150,000 for over 6,000 hours of work in the case. The law firm sued the state and claimed the $100,000 limitation was unconstitutional, and asked for the statutory measure of 25% of the subsequent award. That request is the basis for the issue on which the Florida Supreme Court is now invited to rule. Because attorneys are largely compensated on a contingency basis in personal injury actions, this case will have a dramatic effect on the injured person’s access to quality legal counsel in cases involving Florida agencies and subdivisions.

Contact Us For Help

If your child has suffered a debilitating birth injury, you need to know your rights and the possible obstacles to your recovery. The skilled professionals at the Tallahassee law firm of Barrett, Fasig & Brooks have many years of experience fighting for injured clients. If you or a loved one has been injured in Florida, contact us today to set up your free initial consultation at (866) 346-4186 or (850) 224-3310.

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