TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - A narrowly divided Florida Supreme Court has found a fee and cost restriction in a claims bill to be unconstitutional and therefore invalid.

In a 4-3 opinion, filed Jan. 31, the state’s high court said the Legislature cannot limit the amount of attorney fees to paid out of money it approves for a claims bill.

Justices James E.C. Perry, Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy A. Quince were in the majority. Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga dissented.

In Florida, state law limits recovery against the State or its agencies or subdivisions to $100,000 per person or $200,000 per incident in damages, with a 25 percent cap on attorneys’ fees.

To get more, lawmakers must pass a claims bill, or a relief act.

The majority, in its 29-page ruling, said lawmakers can approve or deny a claims bill, but can’t impair a preexisting contract between an attorney and a client.

“The Legislature specifically directs that recovery of any amounts that exceed the limited waiver of sovereign immunity may be collected only by way of a legislative claims bill. This is the procedure by which Searcy Denney and the related firms sought further payment of the $28.3 million judgment obtained in the circuit court,” the majority wrote. “By litigating and obtaining this judgment before seeking a claims bill, Searcy Denney also met the requirements of Senate Rule 4.81(6), which requires that a claims bill may not be heard or considered by the Senate ‘until all available administrative and judicial remedies have been exhausted.’”

Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley PA, based in West Palm Beach, represented Aaron Edwards, who sustained a brain injury as a result of the negligence of employees at Lee Memorial Health System in 1997, according to court documents.

After nearly 10 years of litigation, Edwards’ case finally went to trial in 2007. After a five-week trial, the jury unanimously found Lee Memorial to have negligently caused Edwards’ injury.

They determined Edwards’ damages to be $28.3 million, his mother’s damages to be $1.34 million and his father’s damages to be $1 million, for a total verdict of $30.8 million.

Because of the special district status of Lee Memorial, which cloaked it with sovereign immunity, the trial judge limited the judgment on the $30.8 million verdict to $200,000.

For Edwards to receive the rest of his damages, it was necessary to pass a law in the Florida Legislature requiring the payment by Lee Memorial, i.e. the claims bill at issue.

Lee Memorial appealed the verdict to the Second District Court of Appeals, which unanimously affirmed the jury’s verdict.

Searcy Denney lobbied the Legislature for two years attempting to pass Edwards’ claims bill.

Finally, in 2011, the Legislature passed the claims bill for $15 million -- only half of Edwards’ damages -- and inserted a limitation on the attorneys’ fees and costs of $100,000.

The firm argued that lawyers had spent more than 7,000 hours representing Edwards over 13 years and had advanced more than $500,000 from their own pockets to cover his litigation costs.

“The fee and cost restriction did not even allow reimbursement of all costs,” the firm said in a statement this month. “It allowed no fee.”

The trial court upheld the restriction, noting that while it was unfair, the court did not have the authority to declare it unconstitutional.

The state’s Fourth District Court of Appeals also upheld the constitutionality of the limitation. However, Chief Judge Cory J. Ciklin dissented and opined that under the U.S. Constitution and Florida Constitution, the fee agreement with the Edwards family was impaired by the limitation provision in the claims bill.

The state Supreme Court agreed.

“The right to contract for legal services in order to petition for redress is a right that is related to the First Amendment, and any impairment of that right not only adversely affects the right of the lawyer to receive his fee but the right of the party to obtain, by contract, competent legal representation to ensure meaningful access to courts to petition for redress,” the majority wrote.

“The ‘draconian limitation’ on the fees in this case, in contravention of the preexisting contract and the provisions of section 768.28, sets an unfortunate precedent that, if allowed to stand, would effectively chill the right of future litigants to obtain effective counsel to make their case for compensation due for injuries caused by the State or its agencies and subdivisions.”

Chris Searcy, lead counsel for Edwards and his family, praised the Supreme Court’s decision, saying had the limitation been allowed to stand, it, indeed, would have had a chilling effect.

“The clients were overjoyed with the Supreme Court’s decision,” he said. “They were very thankful the door to the courthouse was not slammed behind them.

“This historic decision helps preserve the right of wrongfully injured victims to have access to counsel and the courts.”

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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