Court Backs School Boards on ‘PIP’ Payments

TALLAHASSEE — In an issue that could wind up at the Florida Supreme Court, an appeals court Wednesday ruled that two school boards are not required to reimburse State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. for medical expenses of three people injured in school-bus accidents.

A three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that the Broward County School Board and the Palm Beach School Board are shielded from having to reimburse costs paid by State Farm under the state’s no-fault, or personal-injury protection, insurance system.

But the ruling conflicted with a 2019 decision by the 2nd District Court of Appeal in a Lee County case, leading the panel Wednesday to take a step known as certifying conflict — potentially increasing the likelihood of the issue being resolved by the Supreme Court.

The ruling involved three consolidated cases — two from Broward and one from Palm Beach — involving injuries to bus drivers and a pedestrian.

In the personal-injury protection, or PIP, system, insurers pay up to $10,000 in medical expenses when people covered under their policies are injured. A brief filed last year by Broward County School Board attorneys said a 1997 law made PIP benefits available to school-bus occupants through the occupants’ insurance policies or through their families’ policies.

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The three people who were injured in the Broward and Palm Beach cases were covered under State Farm policies, and the insurer argued it should receive reimbursements for medical expenses.

The appeals court, however, overturned decisions by lower-court judges and said the Broward and Palm Beach school boards did not have to pay because of sovereign immunity, which generally helps shield government agencies from lawsuits.

The ruling, written by Chief Judge Mark Klingensmith and joined by Judges Robert Gross and Alan Forst, said that in Florida, “sovereign immunity protects the state and its subdivisions from suit unless it is waived.”

“Under our court’s reading of the applicable statutes, the plain language of (part of state law) does not clearly and unequivocally waive the sovereign immunity of school boards for PIP reimbursement claims,” the ruling said, noting disagreement on the issue with the 2nd District Court of Appeal decision in the Lee County case.

One of the Broward cases involved injuries suffered in a 2019 accident by bus driver Muhammad Salehjee, with State Farm paying $9,300 for medical treatment, according to a brief filed last year by attorneys for the insurer. Similarly, the insurer said it paid $9,400 to treat injuries suffered by Palm Beach County school-bus driver Yolette Jean Bart in a 2019 accident.

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The other case involved injuries suffered in 2019 by Wadny Sido, who had been a passenger on a Broward school bus and was struck after getting off the vehicle, according to court documents. Sido’s mother had a State Farm policy, and the insurer paid $10,000 in PIP benefits.

State Farm filed the lawsuits after the school boards denied reimbursement, contending the Legislature waived sovereign immunity in the 1997 law that made changes to PIP. In the brief filed last year, it pointed to the 2nd District Court of Appeal decision.

“In 2019, the Second District issued a ruling that has been binding state-wide since that time,” the insurer’s attorneys wrote. “The Florida Legislature has not taken any action in response to that ruling. If the school boards believe that the Second District misinterpreted the 1997 PIP amendments, they should raise that issue with the Legislature, not the courts.”

But the Broward school board’s attorneys disputed such arguments, saying the Legislature in 1997 sought to make PIP benefits “available to most occupants of public school buses through their own or family vehicle insurance policies, continue to exempt county school districts from incurring the cost of providing the benefits and placing the cost of the additional no fault benefits on vehicle insurers who could in turn pay for the additional costs through increased premiums.”

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