The Parkland Families’ Sovereign Immunity Problem

The families of the victims of the Parkland shooting are outraged that the Broward School District is purporting to limit its liability. The sovereign immunity statute states that neither Florida nor its agencies or subdivisions (i.e. any county) are liable for more than $300,000 for damages arising out of the same incident or occurrence. Florida Statute 768.28(5). Because all seventeen deaths arguably constituted one “incident or occurrence,” the statute could cap the families’ collective recovery.

The families could seek federal civil rights remedies on the theory that officials were deliberately indifferent to school safety. Federal civil rights claims are not limited by the sovereign immunity cap. However, despite numerous lapses by local and federal authorities before and during the Parkland shooting, the standard required is “deliberate indifference,” not mere negligence. Moreover, federal courts are highly skeptical of “failure to protect” claims in the education context, even for minors.

However, the families may have another avenue to pursue greater damages. The families may seek a “private bill” whereby the legislature would waive this sovereign immunity cap and pay excess judgments. Although such legislation is rare, the Parkland shooting is an exceptional situation.