Six years after the tragic passing of University of Central Florida (UCF) football player, Ereck Plancher, the Florida Supreme Court has issued a ruling that dramatically affects the jury verdict amount the Plancher family was awarded in the summer of 2011. The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the UCF Athletic Association, Inc. (“UCFAA”), a private entity, is entitled to sovereign immunity protection under Florida Statute § 768.28.
In 2011, a jury in Orange County, Florida, compensated the Plancher family $10 million in damages for the death of their son, Ereck. UCFAA appealed an earlier ruling by the trial court claiming they should be considered an “instrumentality of the state for sovereign immunity purposes” and with that the statutory cap on damages should apply. The Fifth District Court of Appeals agreed with UCFAA and held they were entitled to sovereign immunity and the verdict should be reduced accordingly. The Plancher family appealed this to the Florida Supreme Court.
The Florida Legislature passed Florida Statute § 768.28, in part stating that actions against the State of Florida, including counties and municipalities, is allowed, however, currently damages are capped at $200,000 per person or a maximum of $300,000 per the same incident or occurrence. In 2008, when Ereck Plancher passed away, the cap was $100,000 per person/$200,000 per incident.
Interestingly, the Plancher family argued that even though UCF is entitled to sovereign immunity caps, the Athletic Association was a private entity, not controlled by UCF and thus should not be entitled to the same protections. The Florida Supreme Court disagreed opining, UCF maintains control over the Athletic Association by controlling its board of directors, approving amendments to bylaws, budgeting, and UCF athletic director runs the day-to-day operations. With this ruling, the Florida Supreme Court upheld entering the $10 million verdict against UCFAA.
What is next for the Plancher family? Even though the verdict of $10 million can be entered, UCFAA is only liable to pay $200,000 to the Plancher family. The Plancher family can now seek to have the Florida Legislature pass a “claims bill” pursuant to Florida Statute § 768.28(5) to collect the remaining judgment. However, the Florida Legislature has not passed a “claims bill” in the past two legislative sessions and they are incredibly difficult to get passed prior to those sessions.