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Victim Paralyzed when Branch Fell from City-Owned Tree Still Awaiting Payout Nearly 3 years Following Incident

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Gainesville Personal Injury Attorneys of the Law Office of Alba & Yochim P.A. comment on some rather disconcerting circumstances that have left a paralyzed teen and his family waiting for millions in proceeds—more than 11 months after the order authorizing settlement was entered by the court—and—nearly three years after the victim was injured.  What seems equally upsetting is that the Defendant, the City of Jacksonville, has agreed to the $3.5 million award in monetary damages, and council members are also pushing for the victim’s receipt of the full settlement amount.

Most disturbing of all is that the accident could have been prevented. Despite multiple complaints from community residents, over a period of several months, notifying Jacksonville officials of two rotting city-owned trees in their residential neighborhood, nothing was done to fix the problem. Eventually the smaller of the two trees fell, and the city did come to remove the debris, but failed to address the issue with the larger tree. Six weeks later, a branch from the larger tree fell, causing catastrophic injury to 15-year-old Aubrey Stewart, as he stood in his family’s driveway. Heartbreakingly, the teen was paralyzed as a result of the incident.

The City of Jacksonville, in recognition of their fault in the incident, agreed to settle the matter with the Stewart family for $3.5 million. So, why haven’t the Stewarts been paid the full award amount yet? Well, the answer to this resides partly in a Florida Statute that requires approval from the Legislature for claims against a city, county, state, or other government entity, that are in excess of the $200,000 statutory limit. Although the Stewarts, with the support of the City of Jacksonville, have sought relief through the appropriate procedural means—filing a claims bill with the Florida Legislature seeking approval for the remaining $3.3 million—the family has yet to be paid.

So, why then, in the presence of a statutory remedy that provides victims with an alternative means to recover excess damages, are the Stewarts still awaiting payment? The alarming answer—Florida Senate President Don Gaetz has refused to hear the Stewart’s claims bill, or any other claims bills, during his two-year term, which ends later this year. The reasoning Gaetz provides in support of his refusal to hear claims bills, is that he feels that the state’s system for paying such claims is broken. “It’s simply a process that sometimes leans this way and sometimes leans that way and tends to be not fact specific and not fair,” Gaetz stated in March. He feels that “we’ve really not had a process that allowed claims bills to be heard on their merits.” Gaetz went on to say that “[i]nstead it’s been who the lobbyist is, who the sponsor is, and how the biscuits were in the majority or minority office that morning.”

Yet, despite his identification of problems with the system, Gaetz has done nothing to fix it—not for the Stewarts—and not for other victims that have been left in a similar predicament. In short, Gaetz has neither introduced new legislation aimed at reforming the system, nor has he been willing to make an exception for the Stewarts. Which makes one wonder if Gaetz real goal is to fix the system or paralyze it completely.  Moreover, his failure to take action continues even in the face of unanimous support from Jacksonville City Council members. As provided in a statement by Councilman Stephen Joost:

“We admitted liability…It was our fault. We owe $3.3 million and we need to pay it…Put yourself in this guy’s place. He’s in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. We ruined the man’s life, and we need to pay him. It’s that simple.”

As Accident and Injury attorneys, we find the state’s inaction in this matter shocking, to say the very least. First of all, the $3.5 Million settlement is a mere third of what economist Frederick Raffa estimates the family will spend in future cost of caring for the now, 18-year-old victim. Further, consider the ability to care for the victim with just the $200,000 the city is able to pay the family. According to Life Expectancy calculator, as of 2014 Aubrey is expected to live at least until the age of 82, with an additional potential life expectancy of 88. That’s another 64 to 68 years. Applying a median range of life expectancy, this would provide the Stewarts with a little more than $3,000 a year to care for Aubrey. Yet, the average cost of raising a child without disabilities is more than $10,000 a year in Florida.

The attorneys of the Law Office of Alba & Yochim P.A. support the numerous Florida residents, City of Jacksonville, activist groups, lobbyists, and most of all, the Stewarts, in their efforts to ensure that the victim receives the compensation he deserves. At the same time, we must also remember that the Stewarts are not the only family affected by this issue. Certainly it seems that the issues surrounding Florida’s caps on government liability, should be a top area of reformative concern and Gaetz goal in paralyzing the system, just as this young man was paralyzed, a top question for Florida voters.

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