The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that because the University of Central Florida Athletics Association acts as an instrumentality of the state, it is entitled to limited sovereign immunity and thus is only responsible for paying $200,000 of a $10 million wrongful death judgment for the sports-related death of a college football player in 2008.
The court’s decision in Plancher v. UCF Athletics Ass’n, Inc. is an affirmation of an earlier decision by Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals, following a jury trial that found in favor of the family.
Surviving family members of the football player do have one last option: The Florida legislature.
Generally, the state of Florida – and it’s instrumentalities – may only be held liable for up to $200,000 per person and $300,000 per tort claim. That’s actually an increase from what it was prior to 2011, but it’s not nearly sufficient in cases of catastrophic injuries and wrongful death. Florida Statute 768.28 is the law that outlines state sovereign immunity and damage caps.
Sovereign immunity, also sometimes referred to “crown immunity,” is the legal doctrine holding a sovereign or state cannot legally commit a wrong and is immune from criminal prosecution or a civil lawsuit. The government will sometimes issue a “waiver” to this provision under certain circumstances and allow itself to be held liable for acts of its departments and employees in causing harm to others. However in Florida, the most a person or family can receive is $300,000 (or $200,000 if the claim only involves one individual).
The only way to get around this damage cap is with approval from the state legislature. Lawmakers had been reticent in recent years to pass any such measures, but this year did sign off on several. In total, the state allowed for $13 million to be paid out to 14 people injured by local government and medical entities.
Make no mistake: The claims bill process is one of the most contentious. Thirteen million dollars may sound like a lot, but we’re talking about people who have suffered serious injury, brain damage or death. We’re also talking less than $1 million per claim, on average. If these people were to have been injured by a private sector party, their damage compensation would likely have been significantly higher.
In the Plancher case, the key question was whether the college athletic association is a government entity, as the public college did enjoy this status. Plaintiffs argued the athletic association did not have significant day-to-day oversight of university activities, and thus could not be deemed an arm of the government. The Florida Supreme court disagreed.
According to court records, the 19-year-old football player collapsed and died during conditioning drills at the school. His family asserted negligence by the coach resulted in his death.
Plaintiffs had argued in this wrongful death lawsuit the formation of UCFAA was the result of the privatization of the school’s athletics programs, and could not enjoy the benefits of operating as a private corporation – absent state control – and also be shielded from liability as if it were the state. However, the court sided with defense, which argued that because the school controls all of UCFAA’s operations, finances and even existence, it is considered a part of the school and thus entitled to protection from liability.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Plancher v. UCF Athletics Ass’n, Inc. , May 28, 2015, Florida Supreme Court
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