By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Christopher Thieman was fired three months after the trial for falsifying police records. In what came to be known as the "Powertrac scandal" involving two other officers and their superiors, Thieman was found to have invented confessions and attributed them to people he had never spoken to.
BSO appealed the trial verdict twice during the next three years. It lost in the Fourth District Court of Appeals, and the Florida Supreme Court dismissed the case. In 2009, when BSO had finally exhausted its legal remedies, Block submitted the Brodys' claims bill to the Florida Legislature. In the years after the trial, Ranger Insurance Co. had been swallowed up by a series of larger companies: The claim was now held by Fairfax Financial Holding Ltd., a multibillion-dollar company based in Toronto. Fairfax is legally obligated to pay the Brodys, but instead, the company prepared to fight the claim.
The Brodys needed their trial settlement more than ever. Eric's health was deteriorating. The steady progress he'd made with speech and physical therapy had stalled or eroded. Eric's health care was now covered by Medicaid and Medicare. But the funds available for therapy changed from year to year. For three or four months at a time, Eric would get speech and physical therapy, and then the funding would dry up. His speech was becoming harder to understand. His mind wandered, and he started repeating himself. Both Brodys were still working full time. Even with an aide coming in daily, they were exhausted trying to care for him around the clock.
In Tallahassee, Fairfax hired RiverStone Claims Management Co. to see that the Brody settlement was forgotten. RiverStone and BSO hired nearly 20 lobbyists. They included Peter Antonacci from Gray Robinson and lawyers Hayden Dempsey and Barry Richard of Greenberg Traurig. In meetings, Chuck says the lobbyists from Greenberg Traurig and RiverStone told him that the Brodys would "never get a claims bill though the Legislature" and that the jury's verdict was "not real."
Despite RiverStone's maneuvering, House Rep. Rachel Burgin, a Republican from Tampa, sponsored a bill that would approve the Brodys' settlement. "A judge and jury decided that the sheriff's office was at fault," Burgin says.
The Brodys picked up some allies in the Legislature, including Sen. Ted Deutch, who was outraged at RiverStone's recalcitrance. "This case is almost 12 years old," says Deutch, a Democrat from Delray Beach. "There was a $3 million insurance policy in place that the citizens of Broward County paid for. Broward taxpayers paid $400,000 to obtain that insurance for BSO. The case went through the courts; a [$30.6 million] verdict was upheld on appeal; the courts did their job. This case has dragged on at significant expense to taxpayers."
RiverStone's lobbyists emphasized to lawmakers that BSO would have to pay most of the settlement, forcing the agency to cut services. So in April, Block proposed an elegant solution: The Senate claims bill could be amended to release the Broward Sheriff's Office from any responsibility should Fairfax refuse to pay the claim. The amendment would allow the Brodys to sue Fairfax directly for "bad faith" — charging that the company had deliberately withheld a fair insurance award during the seven years before the trial. The amendment would extinguish BSO's liability. The Senate added the amendment, and the bill passed resoundingly, 32-4.
Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti himself still "adamantly opposed" the compromise, even though it would have freed his department from financial responsibility for the claim. He voiced his objections in a letter to House and Senate leaders. It has never been adequately explained why BSO lined up so stubbornly with the insurer, even against what appeared to be its own best interests.
BSO spokesman Jim Leljedal said Lamberti wouldn't comment about the Brody case. BSO General Counsel Judith Levine issued a statement that claimed the sheriff wants Eric to be "provided for and financially secure" but that the bills in the Legislature would not have accomplished that. "The only outcome that would guarantee that Eric Brody would benefit and benefit immediately," Levine wrote, "would be for the parties to reach a reasonable settlement."
As the House and Senate spent weeks debating the bill, lawmakers approached the Brodys with suggestions to settle the claim for less money, first for $12 million and then for $7 million. They declined the offers. "I hate to be a pain in the butt," Chuck says, "but they literally destroyed my kid's life. He will never marry. He will never have a family. He's shot. He's done."
The day the bill was set to go before the House, RiverStone announced in a news conference that it had hired former House speaker and former University of Florida law professor Jon Mills to examine the bad-faith amendment. Mills stated in a letter that, in his opinion, the amended claims bill might be unconstitutional.
Block calls Mill's opinion "laughable."
"I am sure this opinion cost a lot of money," Block says, "but it is full of holes and is either a disingenuous presentation or it demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of bad-faith and sovereign-immunity law."
RiverStone's maneuverers were enough to create uncertainty in the House. As time ran out, Burgin had no choice but to table her bill.