UCF Football Uses Statutory Caps to Play Defense in Student Death Lawsuit

In 2008, Erick Plancher, a student and football player at the University of Central Florida (UCF) collapsed and died on the field during an offseason condition practice held by the coaching staff.  As a state run university, UCF enjoys sovereign immunity protections that limit the amount of money they can be sued for. The UCF Athletics Association, Inc. (UCFAA) that administers support to UCF athletics programs is set up as a private entity. The Planchers sued the UCFAA for negligence and won a jury award of $10 million.

The appeals court reversed the jury award. They ruled that UCFAA was a “direct support organization,” run by UCF president and state employee John Hitt. This effectively granted UCFAA state agency status and sovereign immunity protections that limited damages to the statutory cap of $200,000. The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed the appeals court decision in 2015, finding that UCFAA is run on a day-to-day basis under direct governmental control and financing. It should be noted that the Court upheld the $10 million jury award, but ruled that UCFAA’s liability for that amount should be limited to the statutory cap of $200,000.

Sovereign immunity protects city, county and state governmental entities from being sued unless authorized by Florida statute or waived by the entity itself. There are strict time limits for bringing such a lawsuit under Florida’s Sovereign Immunity Statute § 768.28:

  • 3 Years – Pre-suit notice must be provided to the entity or agency being sued and the Department of Financial Services within three years of the claim accruing.
  • 4 Years – The lawsuit must be filed within four years of the claim accruing.

­Statutory caps under § 768.28 are meant to protect public treasuries from being drained by excessive litigation, preserve the ability of public entities to function, and allow government employees to do their jobs without fear of being sued.

These caps limit plaintiffs to damages of $200,000 per claimant and an additional $100,000 if they have dependents (lawyer’s fees are capped at 25% of the damage award). The government entity has six months to evaluate the claim once it is received, at which time they may deny it or offer a settlement prior to the plaintiff filing a lawsuit.

Despite recovery caps on sovereign entities, greater awards can be sought through a claims bill in the Florida Legislature. This complicated process requires lobbying for politicians to sponsor a bill, getting majority votes in the state House and Senate, and then the approval and signature of the Governor. If you are considering a lawsuit against a governmental entity then you must speak to an experienced Florida personal injury attorney ­today. Contact our firm today to schedule your free consultation.