With May 9 trial looming on woman’s lawsuit over horrific injuries allegedly suffered in accident blamed on Sarasota County employee, commissioners hold ‘shade meeting’ with county attorney

While jogging on sidewalk along Bahia Vista Street, Kristin Stewart struck by county truck and dragged beneath it for 60 feet, her complaint says

This aerial map shows the location of the intersection of Witmarsum Boulevard and Bahia Vista Street. Image from Google Maps

On May 13, 2020, Southside Elementary School teacher Kristin A. Stewart was jogging on a Bahia Vista Street sidewalk when a Sarasota County employee drove his truck off the road and struck her from behind, Stewart has contended in a lawsuit.

Driven by Tsuguo Kanayama of Sarasota, the truck did not stop, the complaint says. Instead, with Stewart pinned beneath it, the truck continued along the sidewalk, dragging Stewart for 60 feet on the concrete and tearing the skin off her torso, hips and arms, the lawsuit adds.

Her pelvis was crushed; her liver was lacerated; her kidneys, stomach and colon were damaged; and “many ribs” and vertebra were broken, the suit continues.

She did not lose consciousness, the complaint adds, “but remained awake and alert, conscious of the pain and injuries done to her.”

Kanayama reportedly was working at the time of the incident, the complaint says. The Florida Highway Patrol cited him for careless driving.

The incident occurred near the intersection of Witmarsum Boulevard and Bahia Vista Street, the suit adds. That location is west of the intersection of Honore Avenue.

As a result of the accident, the complaint contends, Stewart suffered not only pain, but “disfigurement, mental anguish, inconvenience, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, expense of hospitalization, medical and nursing care and treatment, loss of earnings [and] aggravation of a previously existing condition.”

This is a photo of Kristin A. Stewart with students at Southside Elementary School. It was included in a Sept. 1, 2020 post she wrote about herself for the school. Image from Facebook

(In a Sept. 1, 2020 Facebook post, Stewart wrote that she had been a teacher in Sarasota County for 13 years and a teacher at Southside Elementary School for the past 11 years.)

On Dec. 15, 2020, Stewart’s attorney, James W. Gustafson Jr. of Tallahassee, a partner with the firm of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, filed the complaint against Sarasota County, seeking damages in excess of $30,000 and asking for a jury trial. (Sarasota attorney David J. Sales later joined Gustafson in representing Stewart.)

This is a Ford F550 truck as shown in 2016. Photo by Grendelkhan via Wikimedia Commons

As owner of the truck in the incident, the complaint argues, the county “is responsible for the operation of that motor vehicle by [Kanaymaya],” who had county permission to drive it.

Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court records show that the case has been set to go to trial the week of May 9, as noted in a July 12, 2021 order signed by Circuit Judge Andrea McHugh.

On April 26, after concluding the rest of the business scheduled for their regular meeting that day, the Sarasota County commissioners participated in an approximately 30-minute executive session — known as a “shade meeting” — to discuss the lawsuit.

The agenda item said, “The County Attorney requests an Executive Session with the Board of County Commissioners in accordance with section 286.011(8), Florida Statutes, to discuss Kristin A. Stewart v. Sarasota County, Case No. 2020 CA 005362 NC. (Note: Attending the meeting will be the Members of the Board of County Commissioners: Chairman Alan Maio, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, Commissioner Nancy Detert, Commissioner Michael Moran, Commissioner Christian Ziegler; County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, County Attorney Frederick Elbrecht, Deputy County Attorney Bora Kayan, and a court reporter.”

This is part of Florida Statue 286.0118. Image courtesy State of Florida

After that discussion ended, the commissioners and staff returned to Chambers, where Maio adjourned the April 26 meeting.

Typically, no public comments ensue after an executive session. Elbrecht generally reports the resolution of litigation to the commissioners during a regular meeting, after notifying them ahead of time via memorandum.

Preparing for the trial

In its Jan. 12, 2021 response to Stewart’s complaint, the county argued that it was barred from the lawsuit because of the doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which — as Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute explains — derives from “British common law doctrine based on the idea that the King could do no wrong.”

The county answer also referenced Section 768.28 of the Florida Statutes, which provides legal immunity provisions for government entities in Florida and limits “the amount of damages that may be recoverable …” That amount is $200,000, the statute indicates, though a higher figure is possible if the Legislature authorizes it.

This is a close-up of the crosswalk at Witmarsum Boulevard. Image from Google Maps

Further, Deputy County Attorney Kayan alleged that Stewart “was herself negligent and such negligence was the sole proximate cause of any alleged accident, injuries and damages [that she sustained].” Alternatively, the answer continued, her negligence “was a contributing cause of any alleged accident, injuries and damages …”

Moreover, Kayan contended that Stewart’s injuries were not a result of the accident but “the result of a pre-existing disease process or injury …”

Kayan also demanded a jury trial.

Dr. Craig H. Lichtblau. Image from his website

Among the witnesses Stewart’s attorneys named in a list submitted to the court are Dr. Craig Lichtblau of Life Care Planning in North Palm Beach, who is board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation (physiatry); Dr. Manuel Gordillo, Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s infectious disease specialist; nine other physicians, including two associated with Imminent Surgical Associates in Sarasota; a Sarasota dentist; a physical therapist; and staff of Baycare Home Health in Sarasota.

A document that Circuit Judge McHugh signed on March 28, in preparation for the May trial, included a statement that would be read to potential jurors.

That statement provided details of the May 2020 incident, with Stewart’s allegation that Kanayama “negligently drove [a] Ford F550 pickup while trying to execute a U-turn along Bahia Vista Street, and drove into the pedestrian crosswalk where [Stewart] was jogging, striking her from behind and causing her to be injured. [Stewart] seeks damages for her economic and noneconomic injuries.”

The statement added, “The County admits that its employee caused the accident while employed and in his scope of work but disputes the extent of the damages claimed by [Stewart].”

That March 28 order also said that the county stipulated to the “[a]uthenticity of medical records, medical bills and expenses, and Plaintiff’s wage information; and that the county “is liable for injuries caused by Kanayama’s negligence which occurred while he was acting within the course and scope of his employment …”

These are all of the facts and stipulations in the order signed by Circuit Judge Andrea McHugh on March 28. Image courtesy Sarasota County Clerk of Court

County Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader on April 28 that Kanayama was a skill trades worker for the county at the time of his retirement in June 2020.

In regard to the scheduled trial, the order estimated the length at five days; the jurors were expected to be drawn from a pool of 40 persons. Further, the order called for one hour per side for opening arguments.

Charges against Kanayama

On Dec. 10, 2020, court records show, Kanayama sent a letter to the Sarasota County Clerk of Court, enclosing a check for $334, which he indicated was his final payment of the $500 fine lodged against him as a result of the Stewart incident.

In a search of 12th Judicial Circuit Court records, the News Leader found two other traffic infractions with which Kanayama had been charged.

In October 2006, he was cited for failure to stop at a steady red signal. He paid the “statutory fine” in that case, the docket says.

Then, on Aug. 12, 2013, he was cited for not wearing a seatbelt as the driver of a vehicle. The fine due, as noted on the form, was $116.