Photo: Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay TimesEric Brody and attorney Lance Block celebrate after the Florida House passed Brody's $10.75 million claims bill. Brody was injured by a speeding Broward County Sheriff's deputy 16 years ago. Brody's mother and father are to the left of Block.
Principle -- or just bile?
An effort to compensate a teenager injured by a Broward deputy turns into a legal morass.
On the night of March 3, 1998, Eric Brody was a high school senior driving home from his part-time job at Sports Authority. A Broward County deputy running late for work in his departmentissued cruiser T-boned Brody’s car. The accident left Brody, now 34, a paraplegic and permanently brain damaged.
Brody’s parents hired West Palm Beachbased personal-injury firm Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley and sued the sheriff’s office. The family worked closely with attorney Lance Block, then a partner at the firm. After seven years of litigation, a jury awarded the family $30.6 million in December 2005. An appeals court upheld the judgment three years later.
For the Brody family, that was the easy part. Because it is a unit of government, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office is protected by sovereign immunity, a centuries-old legal principle that shields governments from many kinds of lawsuits, including most tort claims. Florida’s sovereign immunity laws limit a government’s liability to $200,000 per person, regardless of what a civil court awards. Any additional compensation has to come from the Legislature itself, through a law referred to as a “claims bill.”
The Brody family’s quest for a claims bill lasted from 2009-12, pitting the family against Broward and its insurer, which hired nearly two dozen lobbyists to oppose the bill, including Orlando-based GrayRobinson, the former employer of former state Rep. Dean Cannon (R-Winter Park), Speaker of the state House during the 2011 and 2012 sessions.
The Brody family had its own team, including powerhouse lobbyist Brian Ballard, who was close with then-Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-Merritt Island), who became one of Eric Brody’s biggest champions, and the Sachs Media Group, the Tallahassee firm run by veteran PR exec Ron Sachs.
As the claims bill made its way through the Legislature, Lance Block fell out with the Searcy firm and set up his own practice in Tallahassee. The Brody family went with Block, who represented the family both as a lawyer and a lobbyist. Searcy, Block’s former employer, maintained that Block would owe the firm 80% of whatever fee he ultimately earned on the case and even hired its own lobbyist to protect its interest in the claim.
After a series of failed attempts to pass a claims bill, a breakthrough came late in the 2012 session. The House of Representatives agreed to pass the bill, which by then had been reduced to $10.75 million, with one condition: None of the money could be used to pay any fees or costs for the Brody family’s lawyers or lobbyists.
The Legislature didn’t ban all fees in any of the other 10 claims bills it passed that year. And exactly who came up with the idea to prohibit payment to Brody’s attorneys and lobbyists is a matter of dispute.
Lawmakers and lobbyists involved in the bill say Cannon insisted on it. Cannon disliked Ballard and was furious with the Searcy law firm for using aggressive campaign and lobbying tactics in a separate piece of legislation. But Cannon, who now runs his own lobbying firm in Tallahassee, says the idea came from Block, who “told staff in the Speaker’s office he preferred to have all the fees taken out.”
But Block says he was first approached about eliminating fees by Rep. James Grant (R-Tampa), who sponsored the Brody claims bill in the House. Grant says someone in Cannon’s office told him the provision had to be added, though he says he cannot recall the specific person.
Regardless of where the idea came from, Grant says he met with the entire Brody lobbying team after he was given the no-fee directive from House leadership. “Everybody sitting in that room agreed that the purpose of the bill was to compensate Eric Brody,” Grant says. “I’m sure they would have liked to have been paid, but, to their credit, they all said the client’s mission was bigger than their profit.”
Interestingly, Block’s new contract with Eric Brody’s parents seemed to anticipate legislative meddling. That contract promised to pay Block at least 25% of any claims “regardless of any fee limitations that may be provided for within any claims bill.”
Block, who notes that he spent more than a decade working on Brody’s case, says he wanted to be paid for his work. But he said he agreed to give up his fees because “the most important thing was that the bill pass and it was more important that Eric be compensated than the rest of us be paid fees.”
The final legislation passed on March 8, 2012, almost 14 years to the day after Eric Brody was hurt, and Gov. Rick Scott signed it three weeks later. “Today is a day for gratitude,” Chuck Brody, Eric Brody’s father, said at the time. “This success brings closure for our family and, finally, justice for our son, Eric.”
Chuck Brody’s observation was premature. However much the members of the family’s team had impressed Grant with their willingness to forego compensation, they’ve since spent a good deal of time and energy fighting over a piece of the $10.6 million they say the Brodys owe them.
The suit that’s gotten the most media attention came from Sachs Media Group. In 2013, the firm won an award from an association of public relations professionals for its campaign on behalf of the Brody family, saying in its award submission that it had done the work pro bono and absorbed $70,000 in costs itself. A little over a year later, however, Sachs Media sued Eric Brody’s guardianship in Leon County Circuit Court, demanding to be paid $375,000. The “Justice for Brody” campaign, the firm now said, was never a pro bono case. The suit became a public relations nightmare for Sachs, who would drop it barely a month later without collecting any payment.
Sachs says the awards application was a mistake, not a deliberate attempt to deceive judges. He says he realized suing a paraplegic former client would lead to a “hellstorm of bad PR” for his own firm but insists that he had no choice but to sue because the Brody family was no longer communicating with his firm at that point. All he ever wanted, he says, was for the family to acknowledge that they had a valid contract with his firm. Once they did, he says, he dropped the suit.
“We always had a contract for this work,” he says. “I don’t know that the Legislature can nullify a valid legal contract.”
A similar claim is at the center of a second, far nastier lawsuit. Seven months after the claims bill passed, Searcy sued Block, Brody’s parents, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and Fairfax Specialty Insurance.
In the suit, Searcy casts Block as a disgruntled ex-employee forced out because of addictions to cocaine and “illicit sex with strippers.” The law firm accuses Block of scheming to cut it out of any fees.
Block, who says he has battled depression and alcoholism in the past, says Searcy is distorting and exaggerating facts in an attempt to intimidate him and smear his reputation. “That was a very painful chapter in my life. But I am on the other side of all that and grateful to be in recovery,” he says. “But none of that has anything to do with whether Searcy Denney is entitled to money from Eric Brody.”
The case, now more than 2 years old, is nowhere close to resolution. A new judge was recently assigned to the case, after objections were raised because Chris Searcy, the founding partner of the Searcy law firm, had been involved in the re-election campaign for the previous judge.
Apart from the bitterly personal nature of the suit, Chris Searcy, like Sachs, says there is an important principle at stake. His firm, he says, signed a legal contract with the Brody family and incurred more than $1.1 million in costs while litigating Eric Brody’s case. The Legislature, he says, shouldn’t be allowed to come in after the fact and tear that contract up.
As the court battles drag on, a portion of the money meant to pay for Eric Brody’s care remains in legal limbo, waiting for a resolution. Chuck and Sharon Brody, who are now represented by the Akerman Senterfitt law firm, declined to comment through their attorneys.
Some lawmakers say they now think they made a mistake by trying to ban attorney fees. Grant, the state representative who sponsored the claims bill in the House, says such prohibitions could deter lawyers from taking on similar cases in the future, leaving victims of government negligence nowhere to turn.
Since it was an insurance company, rather than taxpayers, that was ultimately on the hook to pay the Brody claim, the smartest thing to do, he says, would have been to pass a bill that simply granted whatever the jury awarded.
“We should have passed it and left everything else alone, and we wouldn’t be dealing with any of this crap,” Grant says.