Second grade teacher Kristin Stewart was jogging on a May afternoon in 2020 when a Sarasota County utility truck hit her from behind.
She vividly recalls the truck dragging her 65 feet, tearing her flesh and breaking several bones, with one of the vehicle’s big wheels coming to rest on her body.
The accident put her in an induced coma, left her with lasting injuries and ended her teaching career.
“I am unable to run or enjoy the activities that were a part of my daily life,” she recently told Sarasota County commissioners. “I suffer from constant pain.”
Shortly after hearing from Stewart on May 24, the County Commission approved a $5.95 million settlement of the lawsuit she filed in December 2020 over the accident. While the commissioners sympathized with Stewart, her ordeal isn’t over. In Florida, sovereign immunity protects governments from paying out large sums even when they’re at fault. To exceed the liability limits, the Florida Legislature and governor must approve a special bill that would allow Stewart to receive the total payment.
Stewart moved to Sarasota to work as an elementary school teacher and to be near her parents. She taught in the Sarasota County School District for 14 years, including 12 at Southside Elementary.
At the time of the accident, she was Southside’s second grade team leader.
Stewart never saw the 2015 Ford F550 truck on May 13, 2020, while she was on her daily run. She was crossing Witmarsum Boulevard at Bahia Vista, when, according to a memo by County Attorney Frederick Elbrecht, the county worker driving the truck made a legal U-turn on Bahia Vista Street and didn’t observe Stewart.
“After hitting me from behind, the county truck dragged me 65 feet up a concrete sidewalk, ripping the flesh from my arms, both hips and entire abdomen,” she told commissioners at their May 24 meeting.
“I felt the truck hit me,” Stewart said. “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. I remember the truck coming to a stop with its right front wheel on top of me, pinning me to the sidewalk under its weight.”
Besides breaking several broken bones, the accident tore Stewart’s liver in half, lacerated her right kidney, bruised her colon and caused other injuries. She never lost consciousness.
Stewart spent weeks in the hospital and many days on a ventilator in an induced coma, she explained. She has had numerous 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,” she said.
Stewart has nightmares about the incident several times a week. “I have been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of what I went through,” she said.
Her injuries have also affected her daughter, whom she gave birth to last June. The girl had to be delivered several weeks before her due date, as Stewart has skin grafts that restricted the baby’s growth in utero.
“My daughter is healthy, but my limitations have affected her from the start,” she told the commissioners. “Please know, I am trying to live a fulfilling and productive life to the best of my ability, despite what happened to me.”
The Florida Highway Patrol cited the driver for careless driving and his license was suspended for three months. A Sarasota County spokesman said the driver retired from the county on June 1, 2020.
Stewart has incurred over $900,000 in medical expenses and is expected to incur some $400,000 in future medical costs, according to the county attorney’s memo. Her economic losses – such as lost wages and health insurance costs – are projected to be between $2.3 million and $2.75 million, Elbrecht said.
Stewart’s doctors have said she can’t work anymore because of her injuries.
She also has suffered non-economic losses – such as pain and loss of enjoyment of life – the value of which would need to be decided by a jury, according to Elbrecht. He said a jury would likely have awarded her between $3 million and $7.5 million for these non-economic damages.
Stewart was seeking $8.5 million to $10 million from the county initially, but her legal counsel and the county attorney ultimately agreed to a $5.95 million settlement. The settlement was reached just before the trial, which had been scheduled for earlier this month.
The County Commission unanimously approved the settlement.
“Our heart goes out to Ms. Stewart,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said.
In Florida, when an individual wants more than $200,000 in damages from the state or from a local government, the Legislature must pass a claims bill allowing the payment. Detert said the county commissioners can expedite the claim bill process by talking with the state legislators who represent Sarasota County.
“How we can help is to talk to the members of our delegation – I’m sure they’re going to be 100% united in support of our position and Ms. Stewart’s position – and make sure that they work that claims bill really hard and get it done ASAP,” she said.
Claims bills can sometimes take years to gain the needed approval. Gov. Ron DeSantis this week signed a $3.5 million compensation bill stemming from a settlement in a 2014 lawsuit involving the Osceola County School Board in the case of a 13-year-old boy who sustained a brain injury in a school wrestling match.
Sarasota County is going to pay Stewart $200,000 before any legislative action, as the county is allowed to do so.
Anne Snabes covers city and county government for the Herald-Tribune. You can contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_snabes.