Exploring Wrongful Death Law in Florida

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By Marilyn Royce

The state of Florida allows lawsuits for the wrongful death of a family member, but whether a person has standing to file a lawsuit depends on the situation, says ApexFirm.com. Recently, the state’s newspapers and TV news abound with wrongful death cases, and those who it seems should be able to sue for wrongful death but can’t due to exceptions in Florida’s laws.

The complex nature of personal injury law, under which wrongful death falls, requires an experienced attorney to handle each case. Let’s consider some recent cases to understand the importance of seeking the advice of legal counsel in the event of a person’s untimely death, which may include negligence.

The Death of a Disabled Man Under Professional Care

On May 19, 2023, the family of Jerome Sanders, 66, a disabled individual unable to speak or live on his own, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Pensacola Developmental Center (PDC). Mr. Sanders had resided at PDC since 1982 but died under PDC care on June 22, 2022, when an attendant left him in a van for eight hours.

Temperatures on that June day in Pensacola exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Mr. Sanders, who had lost the ability to speak and incurred other serious brain damage from a bout of jaundice at the age of 10 months, could not call out for help. He also lacked the mental acuity to unbuckle his seat belt. He died in the van from hyperthermia.

His family’s lawsuit seeks damages and to uncover the “how” behind what happened to their sibling. They seek to know why the care attendant left him in the van and why no PDC staff noticed his absence.

A Child Dies Just Months After Delivery

In May of 2023, the Miami Herald told the story of a Florida family that cannot sue for wrongful death due to an exception in Florida law. Parents Jean and Ruth Jacques lost their oldest of three children, Reggie, 96 days after his birth. Reggie never left the hospital, having suffered irreversible brain damage during birth.

Born at Winnie Palmer Hospital in Orlando, Florida, and delivered by obstetrician Dr. Ricardo Lopez, Reggie defied the odds for 95 of his 96 days of life. He surprised medical staff by breathing on his own when they removed his ventilator around his one-month birthday.

Created in 1988 to curb malpractice lawsuits, the Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Association (NICA) precludes the Jacques family from seeking compensation for the wrongful death of their eldest child. According to Florida law, if a birth meets the guidelines to qualify for application of NICA, which includes births resulting in catastrophic brain damage due to asphyxia or oxygen deprivation during childbirth, the parents cannot sue the doctor. Instead, NICA awards the family an upfront settlement of $100,000 and pays for the “reasonable” and “medically necessary” medical care for the child for life. In cases where the child perishes, NICA also provides a $10,000 funeral benefit.

Standard of Care

Both situations involve a reasonable standard of care. In most states in the US, the Jacqueses could file a lawsuit against Lopez, but NICA prevents this in Florida. The delay between the death of their brother and Mr. Sanders’ siblings filing a lawsuit illustrates the lengthy and complex preparation required to file a lawsuit. Because the state provides only two years to file this, injured parties need to explore their legal options at an individual’s time of death.