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State Liability In Shooting Deaths Goes To Supreme Court

Florida Supreme Court
The Florida Channel
Florida Supreme Court

In a civil lawsuit stemming from a man killing four of his stepchildren in 2010, plaintiffs are asking the Florida Supreme Court to take up a dispute about how much money a state agency can be required to pay because of allegations of negligence.

Attorneys filed notices last week in the Supreme Court after the 4th District Court of Appeal signaled that it would also like justices to resolve the dispute --- a move by the appeals court known as certifying a question of “great public importance” to the Supreme Court.

The case stems from allegations against 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 a lawsuit against the state, 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 Supreme Court, if it decides to take up the case, could resolve the department’s potential liability 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 legal dispute centers on 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 ruled that each claim would be eligible for as much as $200,000, but the appeals court overturned that decision, saying the $200,000 cap “applies to limit recovery for all claims.”