Office of County Attorney recommends board accept terms; otherwise, case would be rescheduled for trial
With a jury already selected and sworn as of May 6, a deputy Sarasota County attorney and attorneys representing a woman who suffered severe injuries in a May 2020 accident caused by a county employee informed a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge on May 9 that the parties had reached a settlement in the case, Circuit Court records show.
A May 9 Court Appearance Record in the file for the litigation involving Kristin A. Stewart of Sarasota says, however, that “[t]he settlement is pending a vote of the county commissioners on May 24. In the unlikely event the settlement falls through,” the document adds, “the trial would go back on the trial docket on June 13.”
A memo that County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht provided to the county commissioners as part of the agenda packet for their regular meeting on May 24 says that he and his staff recommend the board members approve a $5,950,000 settlement with Stewart, “conditioned on passage of a claims bill by the Florida Legislature.”
Section 768.28 of the Florida Statutes provides that a local government cannot pay more than $200,000 for a settlement without legislative approval.
The county has insurance that would cover up to $2 million, the memo indicated.
On April 25, Elbrecht and Deputy County Attorney Bora S. Kayan conducted a “shade meeting” with the county commissioners to talk about the case.
As is routine after such proceedings, Chair Alan Maio made no comment about the discussion when the board members returned to the Commission Chambers that afternoon. Maio just adjourned the regular meeting that had been conducted that day.
A Southside Elementary School teacher, Stewart was jogging on a Bahia Vista Street sidewalk on May 13, 2020 when county employee Tsuguo Kanayama drove his truck off the road and struck her from behind, she alleged in her complaint against the county.
The truck dragged Stewart 60 feet on the concrete, ripping the skin from her torso, hips and arms, the complaint added. Her pelvis was crushed; her liver was lacerated; her kidneys, stomach and colon were damaged; and “many ribs” and vertebra were broken, the suit continued.
She did not lose consciousness, the complaint pointed out, “but remained awake and alert, conscious of the pain and injuries done to her.”
The Florida Highway Patrol cited Kanayama for careless driving. At the time of the incident, the complaint said, he was working in his capacity as a county employee.
The incident occurred near the intersection of Witmarsum Boulevard and Bahia Vista Street, the complaint noted.
On March 28, Circuit Judge Andrea McHugh signed a document in preparation for the trial, which was scheduled to begin on May 9. That document included “facts admitted & stipulated to avoid unnecessary proof.” Among those, Sarasota County admitted to being “liable for injuries caused by [Kanayama’s] negligence which occurred while he was acting within the course and scope of his employment.”
Court records show that his vehicle was a 2015 Ford F-550. According to a Ford fact sheet, that vehicle had a payload capacity of 12,660 pounds, and it was built to handle 16,000 pounds in conventional towing.
Further, the stipulations said that Stewart “was not negligent in regard to the subject accident,” and that she was in a pedestrian crosswalk at the time she was struck.
Medical procedures and loss of income
The May 24 memo from the Office of the County Attorney explained to the commissioners that Kanayama “was making a legal U-turn as a result of being struck by one of the County’s utility trucks and did not observe [Stewart] as she was jogging in the crosswalk along Bahia Vista Street just west of Honore Avenue. Weather and lighting were not factors as the event occurred in the middle of a bright, sunny day.”
The memo added, “Our driver stopped the truck because it was not operating properly. Once our driver stopped the vehicle and walked to the front of it, he first noticed Ms. Stewart [lying] near the passenger front tire bleeding profusely from her torso and upper legs. Our driver gave her some water and called 911.”
The memo then said that Stewart “had surgery to fix her fractured pelvis,” which necessitated the insertion of two large screws … She was unable to walk for about 3 months.”
Further, during the accident, much of her skin was “(degloved)” from her torso, upper thighs and arms, the memo said, using the medical term for the injury. She “had to undergo several skin grafts. She will need additional surgeries for her abdomen and arms,” the memo continued.
A November 2005 article in the European Journal of Trauma, which has been posted by ResearchGate, explains, “Degloving is a potentially serious injury in which an extensive area of skin is torn from its underlying attachments and thereby deprived of its blood supply. … It completely destroys normal skin and underlying soft tissue,” rendering the victim “defenseless and vulnerable to soft-tissue necrosis and consequently to [numerous] life-threatening infections.”
The memo from the Office of the County Attorney also said that Stewart “suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the accident.”
Prior to the incident, the memo noted, Stewart was a second-grade teacher at Southside Elementary School in Sarasota for almost 15 years. She “did not return to teaching after the accident,” the memo added, because of “her continued treatments to address the physical scarring on her body as well as the continued anxiety and PTSD issues …”
The memo noted that her doctors have the opinion “that she no longer can work due to these injuries.”
Stewart’s medical bills already exceed $900,000, the memo said, “and she is expected to incur some $400,000 in additional future [medical expenses].” Her lost wages, loss of earning capacity and health insurance costs, among other expenses, were projected to add up to as much as $2.75 million, the memo added. “Her non-economic damages claimed” — pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and disfigurement, among them — “were values that would have to be decided by the jury,” the memo continued.
“The amount the jury would have likely awarded [Stewart] for these non-economic damages” was estimated in a range from $3 million to $7.5 million, the memo said.
Prior to filing the lawsuit against the county, the memo pointed out, Stewart was seeking $8.5 million to $10 million “and help with a claims bill,” so she could gain the Legislature’s approval of a settlement above the $200,000 cap.
Along with making the $5,950,000 payment, the memo said, county officials would support the claims bill with the Legislature and pay Stewart $200,000 within 30 days after the commissioners approved the settlement.
“Based on the clear liability of the County and the serious nature of the personal injuries,” the memo added, “we believe it is in the County’s best interest to settle for the negotiated amount versus a jury trial as to damages.”
Therefore, the memo concluded, “The Office of the County Attorney and the County Administrator request the Board of County Commissioners approve the settlement … conditioned upon approval of a claims bill by the Florida Legislature.”
Elbrecht has included a discussion of the settlement proposal on the agenda as part of his report to the commission during the May 24 meeting.