The Jacksonville City Council urged Gov. Rick Scott and Florida lawmakers to pass a claims bill that would allow the city to pay an 18-year-old who was paralyzed when a tree limb fell on him.
Sovereign immunity limits a city’s liability to $200,000 per individual even though Jacksonville agreed Aubrey Stewart was due $3.5 million after he was paralyzed him from the chest down.
Numerous complaints had been filed, including by Stewart’s father, about the rotting tree before the incident. But because the city had lowered its public works budget, nothing was done until it was too late.
The City Council on Tuesday passed an emergency resolution regarding Stewart and the claims bill. It was sponsored by all 19 members of the City Council. Councilman Stephen Joost said he proposed the resolution after reading a Times-Union story about Stewart’s attempts to get paid the money the city agreed to pay him.
The legislative claims bill process allows Stewart to ask the Legislature to let the city pay more than $200,000. In this case, the city supported the bill, asking for the extra $3.3 million.
Instead of $3.5 million, Stewart was given $200,000. He is limited to a wheelchair and his home had to be modified to handle his needs. His family says they need more money.
Senate President Don Gaetz said he would not allow any claims bills during his two-year term as Senate president.
“We admitted liability,” Joost said. “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.”
Gaetz had said he wouldn’t support the claims bill process because it wasn’t a process at all. Claims bills have been filed since 1833, but Gaetz said the bills rely more on emotion and who the lobbyists are than actual jurisprudence.
“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,” he said earlier this month.
“It’s inadequate,” Joost said Wednesday.
The Stewarts’ attorney, Raymond Reid, said the settlement has already gone through a rigorous process. The city general counsel agreed to it. The city’s risk manager agreed to it. The City Council agreed to it. The mayor agreed to it. And now, the City Council is unanimously urging the Legislature to pass the bill.
“I’m completely blown away that the City Council would do this,” Reid said. “On behalf of the Stewart family, we commend and thank the entire city council for its unprecedented and unsolicited emergency action.”
In previous years, Joost said, passing a claims bill hasn’t been a problem.
“There’s got to be some compassion, too,” Joost said. “That’s what’s missing over there (in Tallahassee).”
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.