Nov 6, 2017
No victim of tragedy will every tell you surviving is easy. But this story isn’t about moving on, it’s about being stuck in a state system its own people admit is nearly broken.
5 years later, Lillian Beauchamp is revealing what it's like to battle for justice when the government is on the other side.
“It’s awful, I mean, the whole process is awful,” said Beauchamp.
Awful began March 26, 2012. 9-year-old Aaron was riding the St. Lucie County school bus home when his bus driver turned straight into the path of an oncoming semi.
Aaron, strapped in closest to the point of impact, was one of 30 students on the bus that day. He was the only student killed.
“You just think about the things that you've missed. There are lots of things in 5 years that we've missed,” said a tearful Beauchamp from her St. Lucie County home.
The family sued. After an emotional week-long trial in 2015, a jury found the St. Lucie County school district 87 percent at fault. The Beauchamps were awarded $8.6 million in damages.
“It’s unjust. I think we were beaten down,” said Beauchamp.
When families sue a government agency over a mistake, courts don’t always have the final say. In fact, once families end their battle in a courtroom, a new fight often begins just to get the agency to pay for its mistake. In Florida, that battle involves lawmakers in Tallahassee who have to approve these payouts in a process known as a Florida Claim Bill.
It's a system notorious for turning personal loss into lengthy political showdowns with backroom deals, hired lobbyists and desperate pleas.
“Why are we selling ourselves, like door to door sales people knocking on people’s doors just asking them like a hand out? It’s shameful,” she said about the claim bill process.
“You’re suing the king is what they say,” said Traci Wohlgemuth who eventually stopped tracking the progress of her daughter’s claim bill after the Pasco County Sheriff’s office spent years fighting the $8.4 million in damages a Judge awarded her during a civil trial nearly a decade ago. As is the case with most claims bills that are challenged, if a claims bill is challenged by a government agency lawmakers rarely hear it.
“I had no idea what we were up against. It’s ugly, very ugly,” Wohlgemuth said visibly exhausted talking about the process.
Her daughter, Jenni, was 21 years-old when her car was struck by a Pasco deputy chasing a suspect.
Now 34 years-old, Jenni will never drive again or live alone. She can’t remember 5 minutes ago and hasn’t been paid a dime for the brain injury she’ll live with for the rest of her life.
"I think without a doubt the state of Florida has one of the worst claims bill processes that you could possibly have," said veteran FL Representative Evan Jenne (D-Hollywood).
"It's a rigged game where the best lobbyist can get the job done," he said.
Jenne spent years trying to revise Florida's system for compensating victims of government mistakes. Last session, he introduced a bill to reform the claim bill process but it went nowhere.
Changing a process that currently favors big government and big insurance, he knows, is no easy fix.
"There are very powerful folks on the other side who would like to see nothing change," said Jenne.
Jenne believes one of the first steps to making the state's claim bill process more fair to victims is to increase Florida's limit on how much victims can get paid without a claims bill. Florida's cap is currently $200,000 versus other states with caps of $1,000,000.
In 2013, the statewide non-profit research group Florida's TaxWatch studied Florida's claim bill process and described it as "too arbitrary, too political and lack equity and transparency."
Last spring lawmakers approved the Beauchamps' claim bill after the sSt. Lucie County school district finally agreed to pay 1.5 million dollars of the 8.6 million dollar jury verdict.
"How many times did i want to go through this? How many times did my family want to go through this," asked Beauchamp.
Last spring lawmakers also approved Jenni Wohlgemuth's claim bill after the Pasco County Sheriff's office finally agreed to pay 2.6 million dollars of the 8.6 million dollar jury verdict.
"It's not a victory they won. Jenni didn't win, they won," said Woghelmuth.
It's a process created in the 1970's to protect tax dollars, but it often leaves victims stuck in the government's own mistakes.
"Don't punish families for a process," said Lillian Beauchamp.
Florida TaxWatch offered the following recommendations for claims bill process reform: