Legislature approves county claims bill that would allow full settlement payment of $5.95 million to former Southside teacher severely injured by county employee in traffic accident

Gov. DeSantis has to sign bill to put it into effect

 A bill that state Sen. Joe Gruters filed in the 2023 Florida Legislature to make possible an extra $5.75 million in a Sarasota County Government settlement with a former Southside Elementary teacher has won approval of the Legislature.

The bill, titled Relief of Kristin A. Stewart, won approval in the Florida Senate on April 18, with a vote of 37-1, the bill’s record shows. State Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, cast the “Nay” vote. The bill passed unanimously in the Florida House on April 28, the record adds.

Gov. Ron DeSantis will have to sign the measure for it to go into effect, as noted in the record.

As of late morning on May 4, The Sarasota News Leader found no indication that the bill had been signed.

On May 24, 2022, the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously to approve a total settlement of $5.95 million with Stewart, who was severely injured in May 2020 by a Sarasota County employee, in a traffic incident.

County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht had provided the commissioners a memo with details about Stewart’s claim. The settlement agreement with the county was reached after a jury had been selected and sworn to hear Stewart’s case in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota.

Elbrecht explained in the memo that Section 768.28 of the Florida Statutes provides that a local government cannot pay more than $200,000 for a settlement without legislative approval.

Stewart herself addressed the commissioners during the Open to the Publiccomment period at the start of the commission’s regular meeting on May 24, 2022.

A legislative analysis of the bill undertaken by Florida Senate Special Master Tyler C. Tuszynski explained, “Sarasota County supports the claim bill and reports that $1,000,000 of the funds will be paid through a general liability insurance policy and the remaining $4,750,00 from their self-funded risk pool, and that the relief will not affect the operations of the County.”

Tuszynski also pointed out that an economic loss analysis that Stewart had submitted for the court case said she had a remaining life expectancy of 44.81 years “with work-life expectancy of 29.41 years.”

She was 35 at the time of the incident, the bill itself says.

“The [economic loss] analysis calculates her pre-incident earning capacity as $61,274.54 per year and her post-incident earning capacity as $0,” Tuszynski added in his report. “This post-incident earning capacity is based on the reports of Dr. Craig H. Lichtblau, that in his ‘medical opinion as a Board Certified Physiatrist that this patient would not be able to maintain gainful employment in the competitive open labor market or in a sheltered environment with a benevolent employer [because of] acute, intermittent, exacerbations of chronic pain.’ ”

The analysis included a chart that added up Stewart’s past medical bills, the estimate of her future care expenses, her past lost earnings and future earning capacity, and the cost of “future health/dental/vision insurance.” The total was $3,389,855.49.

The Special Master put the non-economic damages at $2,560,144.51.

He added, “The settled claim amount of $5,950,000, to be paid by the County, seems reasonable based on the evidence presented.”

Details of the incident and the injuries Stewart sustained

A county employee driving a Ford F-550 struck Stewart from behind in a crosswalk while she was running for exercise 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 told the commissioners, “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, Stewart said, lacerated her right kidney, bruised her colon, collapsed her right lung and caused internal bleeding.

“I never lost consciousness,” she said, 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 continued 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.”

According to a Ford fact sheet, an F-550 has a payload capacity of 12,660 pounds, and it was built to handle 16,000 pounds in conventional towing.

She has been diagnosed with PTSD, Stewart told the commissioners.

She spent three months in the hospital, she added, including “many days on a ventilator in an induced coma. I underwent grueling post-operative treatment after my skin-graft surgeries. My pelvis had to be surgically fused together with two large, permanent screws and will never be able to flex like a normal pelvis.”

The debris from the sidewalk that was introduced into her body through the pelvic injuries resulted in what could have been deadly infections, she pointed out.

Stewart was a teacher in the Sarasota County School District for 14 years, she said, having spent the last 12 at Southside.

Her medical care left her with bills of more than $917,000, she said. Moreover, “I need significant care and treatment in the future,” she added.

The accident resulted in her losing her career as a teacher, Stewart said, and she is “unable to run or enjoy the activities that were a part of [her] daily life.”

The legislative analysis of Sen. Gruters’ bill pointed out that the county employee who was driving the truck “attempted to execute a U-turn on Bahia Vista Street in an area that was too small to accommodate the large turning radius of the county utility vehicle he was operating and [he] attempted that U-turn quicker than was reasonable.” The employee “was cited for careless driving at the scene and pled ‘admit/guilty’ to the [charge], resulting in the suspension of his driver’s license for three months and various fines.”

Referencing a deposition of the employee, the analysis added, “Mr. [Tsuguo] Kanayama stated that he was not distracted and his vision was not obstructed.” He also told the Florida Highway Patrol trooper who handled the investigation that he did not see Stewart in a marked crosswalk before he struck her, the analysis says.

Kanyama left his county position in June 2020.

County Commission action

During the May 24, 2022 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger made the motion to approve the proposed settlement, and Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded the motion. With Commissioner Michael Moran absent because he was “under the weather,” as then-Chair Alan Maio said at the outset of the meeting, the motion passed 4-0.

Then-Commissioner Christian Ziegler voiced concern that “sometimes these claims bills can take forever [in the Legislature].”

Having served in both the Florida House and Senate before her first election to the County Commission, in 2016, Commissioner Detert explained that the best way to expedite the process “is to have a [county legislative] delegation that works this [issue] very hard.”

She handled one claims bill for the county when she was still in the Legislature, Detert added. “How we can help is talk to the members of our Delegation. I’m sure they’re going to be 100% committed in support of our position and Ms. Stewart’s position and work it really hard and get it done ASAP.”

Referring again to Stewart, Detert said, “She’s a true champion.”