In Florida, the resolution of a personal injury or wrongful death claim takes on an additional degree of complexity when the individual harmed is a minor. This complexity takes the form of additional procedural requirements imposed by state law.
A personal injury claim arises when one is injured by the carelessness, recklessness, or the intentionally wrongful act of another. A wrongful death claim arises when one has lost a loved one as a result of the carelessness, recklessness, or intentionally wrongful act of another. Both claims are civil in nature. The defendant may be an individual, group of persons, corporation, or other institution. One of the most common bases for both claims – carelessness – is encompassed by the legal doctrine of negligence. Negligence is the breach of a duty owed to a person that results in damages. Common examples include car accidents, construction site accidents, and slip and fall accidents.
In Florida, minors are defined as persons under the age of 18. Procedural requirements vary depending on the amount of the personal injury or wrongful death claim. In Florida, the relevant threshold is $15,000. If the claim is less than this amount, then it is legal for the minor’s parents or natural guardians to settle the claim without first obtaining court approval. The $15,000 threshold concerns the gross settlement amount. Gross refers to the whole of amount – as it stands prior to subtracting sums for legal fees, unpaid medical bills, and other expenses. After these costs have been accounted for, what remains is the net settlement amount.
If a minor’s personal injury or wrongful death gross settlement claim exceeds $15,000, additional procedural requirements are imposed by Florida law. Under state law, minors cannot file personal injury lawsuits in court or settle personal injury claims outside of court on their own when the gross settlement amount of a personal injury claim is greater than $15,000. Accordingly, an attorney-client relationship in the personal injury context can only be formed with the assistance and consent of the minor’s legal guardian. As one might expect, a minor’s legal guardian(s) are most commonly one or both of the minor’s parents. When one or both parents are not available to occupy the guardian position, however, another individual may be appointed by the court to serve as the minor’s legal guardian.
The role the minor’s legal guardian in a personal injury or wrongful death claim is to, in the event of the claim’s success, oversee the settlement funds. This “overseeing” of settlement funds is a core responsibility of guardianship and speaks to a governing rule of the institution: the best interests of the child. The philosophy here is that because a minor is not an adult and not yet capable of making difficult decisions with serious consequences, an adult is needed to step in as decision-maker to ensure that the child’s best interests are looked after.
Returning to specifics, when a judgment is awarded by the court upon conclusion of a successful personal injury or wrongful death claim, it is the job of the minor’s guardian to collect the net settlement amount and release the amount, whether at once or in installments over time, to the minor. The child’s best interests are further protected by one additional layer of checks and balances – the court’s continuing jurisdiction over the disbursement and use of the net settlement amount. This layer of safeguards protects against potential misuse of settlement funds by a parent or guardian. To prevent even the possibility of such misuse, courts frequently direct the minor’s guardian to deposit the net settlement amount into a bank account until the minor reaches the age of 18.
It is worth noting that there exists a gray area with regard to the $15,000 threshold. In the somewhat uncommon case when the gross settlement amount exceeds $15,000, but the net settlement amount – the actual proceeds to the injured child – falls below $15,000, the court will allows the minor’s parents or natural guardian to settle the claim without first obtaining court approval. Here the additional procedural safeguard is removed. This scenario may become more likely to play out in the event costs rise over the period of time before the claim is resolved, thereby decreasing the net settlement. The incentive to relax procedural safeguards is to prevent further costs from further depleting the net settlement amount. It is about justice and the best interests of the minor – ensuring that settlement funds go to the child rather than courts, attorneys, and healthcare facilities.
If you are the parent or guardian of a child who has been injured as a result of the carelessness, recklessness, or intentionally wrongful act of another, reach out to an experienced Florida personal injury attorney. A skilled and experienced attorney will work to obtain the compensation that your child deserves and hold those responsible accountable for their actions.