Senate committee OKs $5 million settlement in boot camp death

Associated Press/April 24, 2007
By Bill Kaczo

Tallahassee -- A Senate committee Tuesday approved a $5 million settlement between the state and family of a teenager who died after being roughed up by juvenile boot camp guards, sending it to the chamber floor for a vote.

Lawmakers, though, could still consider cutting the settlement by half, as recommended by a pair of lawyers who reviewed the case on behalf of the House and Senate, while the claims bill (SB 2968) moves through the Legislature.

Gov. Charlie Crist had proposed the $5 million settlement with the parents of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, who died a day after guards kneed and struck him and forced him to breathe ammonia at the boot camp in Panama City last year. It was all caught on videotape by a surveillance camera.

"This was a black eye in the history of our state and it was quite embarrassing,'' said Sen. Mandy Dawson, who sits on the committee. "I'm really happy that our governor recognized that we needed to move on and ensure this is just not common practice.''

The Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Victor Crist, voted 3-0 to advance the bill to the Senate floor, where a vote could come later this week.

An initial autopsy report blamed the death on complications from sickle cell trait. A second autopsy, though, found Anderson died from suffocation due to being forced to inhale the ammonia.

The state already has paid his parents $200,000, the most allowed by law without legislative approval.

The bill would pay the remaining $4.8 million of the proposed settlement. The camp, although run by the Bay County Sheriff's Department, was part of a state program under the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who is not related to the governor, withdrew an amendment that would have cut the remaining payment to $2.3 million, as recommended by the legislative lawyers. He said he would prefer the issue to be decided by the full Senate instead of a small committee.

It was clear, though, the amendment would have been defeated because the two other committee members present, Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, favor the full settlement. Two other members, Sens. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, and Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, were absent.

The Legislature appointed lawyers Jason Vail, representing the Senate, and Stephanie Birtman, for the House, to hold a hearing on the claim. While the settlement was unopposed, the lawyers, known as special masters, recommended cutting it in half.

Vail told the committee they assumed, based on a study of other wrongful death cases, a jury might have returned a verdict of $10 million. They then decided the state was only 25 percent at fault.

They concluded the sheriff's office, the seven guards who were involved and a camp nurse who stood by without intervening should shoulder the rest of the blame. The guards and nurse are facing manslaughter charges, and the sheriff's office has separately settled with Anderson's parents for $2.4 million.

Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the teen's parents, afterward said he disagreed with the special masters' assumption. "We think a verdict of much higher than $10 million would have been returned,'' Crump said. ``If you are going to make an assumption, we hope that you would give the benefit of the doubt to the victims.''

The family had originally sued for $40 million.

Anderson's parents were present Tuesday but did not address the committee and declined comment afterward. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, turned to them as he spoke, saying, "We are trying to right this wrong. We hope you accept our apology for what happened.''

Hill said he has assurance from House leaders that chamber will consider his bill if it passes the Senate.

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