Many people may feel helpless if they were injured and the government is partially responsible. However, while there are statutes limiting the lawsuits that can be brought against the government, plaintiffs can sue the government if they caused the accident. That said, in Florida, there is a government liability cap. This means a plaintiff cannot typically receive more than $200,000 in damages when the government is a defendant. However, when more than one person has been injured, is the damages cap $200,000 for each defendant or the entire accident? In a recent Florida Supreme Court case, the court was tasked with answering this question. Ultimately, the court concluded that the government liability cap was for the entire event, not an individual damages cap for each victim.
Before a mass shooting, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) was contacted to investigate a husband’s abusive behavior. DCF ultimately concluded that the wife and children were not at significant risk of harm and closed the case file. Several months later, the husband fatally shot his estranged wife and her four children and wounding a fifth child. The estate representative for one of the deceased children filed a lawsuit against DCF, alleging they were liable for the child’s wrongful death. Additionally, the father of the injured child, and the personal representative of the estates for the other three deceased children, filed a separate lawsuit against DCF.
The plaintiffs separately argued that DCF failed to protect the children from an unreasonable risk of harm by not following up and truly investigating the domestic violence matter. DCF argued because of Florida’s limited waiver of sovereign immunity, limiting the damages when the defendant is the government, the most the plaintiffs could recover was $200,000. Florida Statute § 768.28(5) states that damages paid by the state or its agencies for all claims “arising out of the same incident or occurrence” may not exceed $200,000. The plaintiffs argued that the shooting of each individual victim should be viewed as a separate “incident or occurrence,” meaning $200,000 in damages could be given for each deceased child. However, the court determined that the “same incident or occurrence” was referring to the event as a whole, and not the individual action against each individual victim. Therefore, the claims stemming from the shooting arose from the “same incident or occurrence” and is subject to the $200,000 cap for damages paid by the state government.