A mother whose three children were permanently injured more than seven years ago due to a Florida state trooper’s negligence may finally receive compensation from the state. The award amount, however, would be far less than originally agreed upon.
On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously OK’d an amended claims bill by Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley. The bill directs the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to pay about $7.2 million to Christeia Jones as compensation for injuries she and her sons sustained in May 2014.
“The charges for medical care that the three boys have received through the Medicaid program will be paid from this settlement along with attorney’s fees, with the remaining portion paid directly to Ms. Jones on behalf of her sons,” Baxley said. “This amendment is agreed upon between the parties.”
Jones has waited for nearly five years to receive financial relief since initially suing the Florida Highway Patrol in 2017. The next year, she sued the agency for injuries she herself had sustained in the crash.
On Nov. 30, 2018, Jones and the Florida Highway Patrol entered into a settlement agreement for $18 million, the amount both parties concurred a jury could have reasonably awarded her if the case had gone to trial.
The settlement required the Florida Department of Financial services to pay Jones $285,000 in accordance with the state’s sovereign immunity laws, which protect government entities — including law enforcement agencies — from expensive lawsuits.
The balance of the settlement — $17.715 million, from which Jones was to have gotten roughly $16.9 million after paying outstanding Medicaid liens tied to her sons’ treatment — must be authorized by Florida legislators through a claims bill.
Claims bills, also known as “relief acts,” are intended to compensate a person or entity for injuries or losses caused by the negligence or error of a public officer or agency.
Under Florida law, lawsuits against government agencies are capped at $200,000 against one agency and $300,000 against multiple agencies without legislative action.
Now, it appears that after more than half a decade and multiple attempts at seeing through a claims bill, Jones acquiesced to accept about 40% of the sum she and the state had decided was fair recompense.
Jones’ story is any mother’s nightmare. On the night of May 18, 2014, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Raul Umana, then 20, tried to cross through a median gap onto the southbound lanes of Interstate 75 south of Ocala. Records say he misjudged the turn, causing his vehicle to strike a guardrail before cutting into oncoming traffic.
His vehicle collided with a car Jones, then 28, was driving. Her three sons were in the car with her: D.M., then 7; L.M., then 5; and L.G., who was 2 at the time and secured in a forward-facing infant seat.
After Umana’s vehicle struck Jones’ car, an 18-wheel semi-tractor trailer slammed her car from behind, crushing the trunk and rear seating where the boys sat and propelling the car off the road, where it struck a tree and caught fire.
The three children were airlifted to University of Florida Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville.
L.G. suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, extensive facial fractures, pulmonary edema and respiratory failure. Today, he continues to receive weekly speech therapy but “struggles with expressive and receptive language … left-side body weakness and behavior difficulties,” the bill said.
Dr. Paul Kornberg, a Tampa-based pediatric medicine and rehabilitation specialist, said the damage to L.G.’s motor, perceptual, communicative, cognitive and behavioral functions are permanent and will prevent him from achieving gainful employment.
The boy is also at high risk of developing seizures in the future, will require medical aid for long-distance mobility by age 30 and is likely to need future surgeries, adult guardianship and attendant care, Kornberg added.
D.M. was diagnosed with severe traumatic brain injury and subcutaneous tissue scalp lacerations that required surgery. He remained hospitalized for two weeks before being transferred to Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital.
Today, he continues to receive occupational, physical and speech therapy. Kornberg gave D.M. a prognosis similar to his younger brother, including that the boy will need long-term adult care.
L.M. was diagnosed with a Glasgow Coma Scale of 7, denoting a severe traumatic brain injury with a high overall mortality rate, as well as head and shoulder injuries that required surgery and a facial laceration that a plastic surgeon repaired prior to his discharge.
Since the accident, the boy has suffered night terrors and changes in behavior and temperament, which Orlando-based neuropsychologist Dr. Patrick Gorman attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder and significant neurocognitive difficulties secondary to traumatic brain injury.
The three children’s medical bills combined have exceeded $520,600, onto which Medicaid asserted $254,522 in liens.
Dr. Michael Shahnasarian, a psychologist and president of Tampa-based rehabilitation practice Career Consultants of America, estimated it will cost Jones $12.5 million to cover the future medical care of L.G. and D.M., who each have lost up to $2.8 million in earning capacity over their lifetimes.
Umana, who received a careless driving ticket for his role in the 2014 crash, remained employed as a Florida Highway Patrol officer as recently as December 2019, when a state investigation cleared him of fault in the vehicular death of a 73-year-old pedestrian in Marion County.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles did not respond to Florida Politics’ inquiry as to whether Umana still works for the agency. His LinkedIn page still lists him as being a state trooper.
Baxley is the most recent sponsor of a claims bill that would provide Jones and her family compensation beyond the $285,000 the state already paid out.
Democratic Sen. Victor Torres Jr. of Orlando last year filed a bill identical to the one Baxley filed this Legislative Session before he amended it to pay Jones less money. That bill died before reaching a final vote.
The year before, former Republican Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs backed a similar bill that would have paid Jones $9 million. It died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Baxley’s current bill, to which Republican Rep. Lawrence McClure of Dover filed a twin in the House, still awaits hearings by the Senate Appropriations Committee and Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development.
McClure filed his version of the bill Jan. 10, more than five months after Baxley filed his measure. It has yet to be taken up by any of the two committees and two subcommittees to which it was referred.