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Court Questions State Liability In Shooting Deaths

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Pointing to the possibility of the issue arising in future mass shootings, an appeals court Wednesday asked the Florida Supreme Court to resolve questions about how much money a state agency can be required to pay because of allegations it was negligent in the deaths of four children.

The request by a panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal came in a case involving the Florida Department of Children and Families after Palm Beach County resident Patrick Dell in 2010 fatally shot four of his stepchildren and injured one. Dell also killed his wife, Natasha, and fatally shot himself.

The fathers of the children filed lawsuits alleging negligence by the Department of Children and Families, which had investigated an incident in 2009 in which Patrick Dell was alleged to have threatened his wife with a knife and made threats to the entire family, the appeals court said Wednesday.

The request to the Supreme Court --- known as certifying a question of “great public importance” to the Supreme Court --- involves what the Department of Children and Families’ potential liability could be under the state’s sovereign-immunity law, which is designed to shield government agencies from large judgments.

The sovereign-immunity law that applies to the Dell shootings limited to $200,000 the amount of liability for all claims or judgments “arising out of the same incident or occurrence.” But the question facing the appeals court was whether that $200,000 limit should apply as an overall total to the claims against DCF or whether each claim should be capped at $200,000.

A Palm Beach County circuit judge rules that each claim would be eligible for as much as $200,000, but the appeals court in October overturned that decision.

“The current case involves a single claim of negligence against the department in the failure to properly investigate the family and the stepfather before closing its file,” the October appeals-court ruling said. “Thus, each estate’s claim and the claim of the injured child arise from the same incident of negligence of the department. Therefore, the $200,000 cap per incident or occurrence applies to limit recovery for all claims.”

But on Wednesday, the same court certified the issue to the Supreme Court, saying “this issue may continue to arise in the context of mass shootings and other mass injury events.”

“Unfortunately, our state has experienced a number of high-profile mass shootings in the past several years, some of which have led to negligence complaints against state agencies,” the court said.

It also said the October ruling “narrowly construed” state law to limit the overall amount to $200,000. “However, we acknowledge that a broader reading of the statute could allow a per injury limitation,” the court said.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.