DeSantis signs relief bill for former Southside Elementary teacher severely injured after Sarasota County employee ran over her

Action to enable county to provide full $5.95-million settlement to Kristin Stewart

On June 9, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill approved by the Legislature this year that will enable Sarasota County Government to pay a former Southside Elementary School teacher $5.95 million in a settlement over severe injuries she suffered after a county employee ran over her in May 2020.

Filed in the 2023 legislative session by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, the relief bill was necessary for the county to pay Stewart more than the $200,000 allowed by state law. Section 768.28 of the Florida Statutes specifies that limit.

Stewart appeared before the commissioners during their regular meeting on May 24, explaining the extent of her injuries and asking them, “respectfully,” to approve the settlement.

She was running along Bahia Vista Street, in a crosswalk, on May 13, 2020 when a Sarasota County employee in a truck struck her from the rear and dragged her 65 feet on concrete, “ripping the flesh from [her] arms, both hips and entire abdomen. The ‘degloving’ injuries were so deep,” Stewart pointed out, “they shaved down part of my pelvis and tore off my belly button. The truck crushed my pelvis and sacrum,” broke seven vertebra “and snapped five ribs.”

The impact of the truck on her body tore her liver in half, she continued, lacerated her right kidney, bruised her colon, collapsed her right lung and caused internal bleeding.

“I never lost consciousness,” she told the commissioners, her voice quavering. “I felt the truck hit me. I remember every second of being dragged 65 feet on concrete, with the truck on top of me. I remember my bones breaking, and I remember my flesh being torn off.”

When the truck finally came to a stop, she said, the right front wheel was on top of her, pinning her to the sidewalk. “I remember asking the county employee to put the truck in gear and back the truck off my body,” Stewart added. “I remember the pain, and I still have significant pain today. I have nightmares about this several times a week.”

The Florida Highway Patrol cited the employee, Tsuguo Kanayama, for careless driving. He left county employment about a month after the incident.

Court records showed that his vehicle was a 2015 Ford F-550. According to a Ford fact sheet, that type of truck has a payload capacity of 12,660 pounds, and it was built to handle 16,000 pounds in conventional towing.

A jury already had been selected for a trial that was to begin on May 6, 2022 when a deputy county attorney and attorneys representing Stewart reached the agreement on the settlement.

A memo that then-County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht provided to the county commissioners as part of the agenda packet for their regular meeting on May 24, 2022 said that he and his staff recommended that the commissioners approve the $5,950,000 settlement with Stewart, “conditioned on passage of a claims bill by the Florida Legislature.”

“The amount the jury would have likely awarded [Stewart]” … was estimated in a range from $3 million to $7.5 million, the memo said.

Her doctors had made their opinion clear in court documents that she suffers from PTSD and that she no longer would be able to work because of her injuries. She had been a second-grade teacher at Southside for almost 15 years prior to the accident.

The county has insurance that will cover up to $2 million, the memo from the Office of the County Attorney indicated.