Lawsuit over bicyclist’s accident at Benderson Park settled for $95,000, split between county and SANCA

Victim had sought $190,000

The primary entrance to Benderson Park is on North Cattlemen Road, near University Parkway. The path that circles the lake originally had little shade. File photo

On Jan. 31, the assistant to Sarasota County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht sent to all of the county commissioners a copy of Memo No. 1683 from the Office of the County Attorney, advising them that it would be brought up under Elbrecht’s report during their regular meeting on Feb. 8.

Commissioner Michael Moran replied about 40 minutes later, copying his colleagues and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis: “Want to talk with Legal on this please..!!”

On Feb. 8, Moran ended up making the motion to approve the legal settlement recommended in that memo. After a second by Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, the board members unanimously approved the settlement.

During the meeting, Elbrecht summarized the information in Memo No. 1683.

On Feb. 12, 2017, the memo said, Steven E. Fox was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk in Nathan Benderson Park, on the south side of Cattlemen Road, “heading eastbound …” The front tire of the bike “became caught in a gap in the sidewalk joints that ran parallel to his route,” the memo continued. “It was discovered that the expansion joint materials had eroded,” it added.

“The bicycle came to an abrupt halt,” the memo pointed out, with Fox thrown forward over the handlebars. He “injured his shoulder and his elbow/forearm,” which necessitated surgery, the memo said.

“He suffered some serious injuries, requiring multiple surgeries,” as Elbrecht described the situation to the commissioners on Feb. 8.

County Attorney Rick Elbrecht. File Image

A dispute then arose between county staff and the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA), the nonprofit organization that manages Benderson Park for the county, as to whether it or the county was responsible for inspection and maintenance of the park in the area where Fox’s accident had occurred, the memo explained.

“The written contract [between the county and the nonprofit] and addendums indicated SANCA was responsible for inspection of the areas in question and the County was responsible for maintenance,” the memo continued. “Due to a possible oral modification [of the contract terms]” related to the areas of inspection “on this portion of the sidewalk,” the memo added, “[T]he County and SANCA agreed they would [each] contribute 50% toward a settlement with [Fox].”

As of the date on which mediation of the lawsuit was conducted, the memo said, Fox “had incurred $135,000.00 in medical bills,” with most of that expense covered by Medicare and supplemental insurance that he carried. “His initial demand was $190,000,” the memo added.

Attorneys Aubrey O. Dicus Jr. and Jonathan W. Douglas of the Battaglia, Ross, Dicus & McQuaid law firm in St. Petersburg filed the complaint against the county and SANCA on March 8, 2019, 12th Judicial Circuit Court records show.

The suit says that Fox, a Manatee County resident, was riding his bicycle “on the concrete bridge at Nathan Benderson Park” when he saw two pedestrians “walking across the center portion of the bridge,” headed toward him. As a result, the complaint adds, “[H]e turned his bicycle to the right to ride along the right side of the bridge to pass the pedestrians. At that time and place,” the suit continues, “the concrete bridge at Nathan Benderson Park was open to the public …”

As Fox turned his bike, the suit says, “his front tire became stuck in an open groove in the concrete bridge causing him to be thrown off his bike, strike the metal railing and then land on the ground.”

This is a photo of the concrete bridge at Benderson Park. Image courtesy of SANCA

The suit contends that both county and SANCA staff “knew, or should have known, of the dangerous condition which existed at Nathan Benderson Park.”

The Office of the County Attorney (OCA) was able to reach a settlement with Fox for $95,000, the memo to the commissioners pointed out, with the county and SANCA each to pay $47,500, “subject to Board approval.”

The memo added, “Based on the likelihood of liability and serious nature of the personal injuries, we believe it is in the County’s best interest to settle for the negotiated amount.”

The memo noted that the county’s Risk Management staff concurred with the Office of the County Attorney in recommending the commissioners agree to the settlement.

This is an aerial view of Benderson Park. Photo by Matthew Leftwich for Google Maps

No commissioner offered any comments or asked any questions on Feb. 8 after Elbrecht concluded his summary.

A Sarasota News Leader search of 12th Judicial Circuit Court records found that, in November 2021, Circuit Judge Andrea McHugh had set the case for trial this July. Nonetheless, voluntary mediation was scheduled for the full day of Jan. 19, court records also note.

On Jan. 21, attorney M. Joseph Lieb Jr. of West Coast Mediators in Sarasota signed a report explaining that the mediation did result in a settlement of the case.

Earlier mediation, which Lieb also conducted, was held on Aug. 31, 2021, court records note. However, Lieb wrote in his report after that session, “The Mediation resulted in an Adjournment.”