Broward News

Will BSO Need to Lay Off Deputies If Accident Victim Is Paid?

In March 1998, months before he was supposed to graduate high school and head off to Florida State University, then-18-year-old Eric Brody was driving home from his job at Sports Authority in the Sawgrass Mills Mall. Around the same time, a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy named Christopher Thieman left his girlfriend and headed for work. He was late. When Thieman's speeding cruiser slammed into Brody's 1982 AMC Concord, Brody's skull smashed into the passenger door, sending him into a six-week coma and leaving him disabled for life. Today, he lives mostly in a wheelchair and is cared for by his elderly parents.

The nasty legal maneuvering began shortly after the accident and has continued for 11 years.

According to Brody's Tallahassee attorney, Lance Block, there were six times between November 2002 and February 2003 that the Brody family offered to settle with BSO's insurance company for the policy limit of $3 million, but the company wouldn't agree to that, so Brody was forced to go to trial. Block says the insurance company finally came around and did offer to settle -- on the morning the trial got scheduled. But by then, Brody's medical bills were $1.5 million, so they proceeded to court, and in 2005, a jury awarded him a monster verdict of $30 million.

But Brody can't get that money. Why?

Because BSO is a government agency that enjoys protections of sovereign immunity. Even if a jury awards a big settlement, the government won't pay it unless the state Legislature votes on a claims bill to go ahead and pay it out. The sovereign immunity mechanism is in place to protect taxpayers' money, so the state doesn't go broke from lawsuits it loses.

Block says the insurance company knew this would happen all along -- that's why it didn't settle in the first place. He says company representatives were blatant about it: "The company repeatedly told us that the reason it wouldn't offer the money was because it believed we would never get a claims bill passed."

Now, state legislators have introduced bills in both the House and Senate to help get Brody his judgment money. The House Special Master (who reviews cases and advises legislators how to vote) has said Brody deserves it, irrespective of this being a tight budget year. 

Here's where lobbying comes into play. Financial disclosure records show that both the company handling the insurance claim (RiverStone Claims Management) and the BSO have hired the high-powered firm of Greenberg Traurig for lobbying in the past year. In a committee meeting March 30, Greenberg Traurig lawyer Barry Richard told legislators that if they passed the bill and gave Brody his money, it would come out of the BSO budget and the sheriff would in turn have to make huge cuts in services, either laying off 300 deputies, closing five fire stations, or shutting down the county jail. He argued that sovereign immunity was in place precisely for cases like this, to put "a reasonable limit upon the public treasury."

Brody's lawyer argues that that's fearmongering.  Block says BSO shouldn't be on the same side as the insurance company -- in fact, BSO should be going after the insurance company on a bad faith claim because the insurance company, by not settling the case early on, forced the case to go to trial and forced BSO to incur the $30 million judgment. BSO, he says, shouldn't have to pay one dime.  

In Block's own words: "The lobbyists are roaming the halls of the Capitol telling legislators that they represent the BSO even though they are being paid by the insurance company, and they are claiming that deputies would be removed from the streets of Broward County if the Brody bill passes. What they aren't telling the legislators is the BSO's insurance company is guilty of bad faith claims handling practices and will be responsible for paying the entire claim. So now the insurance company is trying to conceal the truth about its responsibility to pay the claim while painting a false picture that if the Legislature passes the Brody bill, it would devastate the sheriff's budget."

But Richard, the BSO lobbyist, says that the BSO is not interested in going after the insurance company for bad faith and that delays early in the case were Block's fault. He also says it's no conflict of interest for his firm to represent both the BSO and RiverStone. (He personally lobbies only for the BSO, he says.) "It's tragic whenever anyone gets in an accident," Richards says, but suggests that $30 million is an unreasonable sum. He points out that had it been an accident between two private drivers, the insurance payout would most likely be just $50,000, which is what most people carry as policy limits. Brody, he said, could have taken the $3 million, which "remained on the table." In fact, the company has since upped the offer to $4.1 million. 

Block counters that their bigger offer is proof that they did wrong and they know it.

In the March 30 committee meeting, legislators discussed transfering the right to sue -- and letting Block go after the insurance company himself. That would require an amendment being added to the bill. Whatever happens, it looks like it will still be a long time before Eric Brody sees any payouts. 

In the years since the accident, Christopher Thieman was fired from BSO for falsifying police records in the infamous Powertrac scandal. Block says Thieman was never even cited for excessive speed. 

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Deirdra Funcheon