Claims bill to pay $3.2M to Monticello nurse harmed in head-on crash with state employee advances
Image via AP.

Police Tape
'This case involves significant and substantial injuries and terminated her career as an emergency room nurse.'

A Monticello woman permanently injured in a grisly car crash caused by an inattentive Florida employee is now one step closer to receiving the remaining balance of an almost $3.4 million settlement with the state.

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill (SB 70) by Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg that, if enacted, would direct the Department of Consumer Services to pay Donna Catalano $3.175 million.

Catalano, who was severely injured in the 2019 accident, has already received $200,000 from the Division of Risk Management — the maximum allowable without Florida Legislature approval.

“This case involves significant and substantial injuries and terminated her career as an emergency room nurse,” Rouson said on behalf of his bill, which cleared the committee without debate or amendment.

The bill and its House analogue by Republican Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin of Miami-Dade are classified as “claims bills” or “relief acts.” They are intended to compensate a person or entity for injuries or losses caused by the negligence or error of a public officer or agency.

They arise when appropriate damages exceed what is allowable under Florida’s sovereign immunity laws, which protect government agencies from costly lawsuits by limiting what can be paid without legislative action. In cases of suits against one government agency, the maximum payout allowable without legislative action is $200,000. In cases against multiple agencies, it’s $300,000.

The crash in question occurred on the afternoon of June 26, 2019.

Catalano was driving home heading east on Highway 90 after completing her nursing shift at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service employee Donald Burthe was driving in the opposite direction in a department vehicle, which area news outlets described as a 2007 Ford Ranger.

Burthe failed to stay in his lane while rounding a curve and veered into oncoming traffic, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report. The result was a near-head-on collision by Still Creek Road near the border between Jefferson and Leon counties.

Emergency personnel from both counties responded to the crash, and both Catalano and Burthe were rushed to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital with serious injuries. Eyewitnesses told reporter Ashley Hunter of ECB Publishing that the jaws of life and a saw had to be used to extract Burthe from his vehicle.

The harm to Catalano was severe and long-lasting, according to Rouson and Fernandez-Barquin’s bills. She suffered “a left side rib fracture, left upper arm and forearm open fracture, a non-displaced fracture of the leg, an open left femur distal fracture, distention of the abdomen, tenderness of the left ribs, and abrasions to the left side of her face.”

She underwent six surgeries over the next three days. Nine days after the accident, medical staff transported her to Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare Rehabilitation Center to begin physical therapy. She stayed there about three months before being discharged to continue physical therapy at home.

“Ms. Catalano now suffers from chronic pain; mental anguish, stress, and anxiety; stiff, aching knees that require her to walk with a cane; an inability to straighten or lift her right arm; and incontinence,” the bills say. “Ms. Catalano can no longer perform traditional nursing duties as a result of these injuries.”

She sued the Department of Agriculture on July 10, 2020. About a year later, she and the state reached a settlement agreement for $3.375 million.

“By passing this bill,” Rouson said, “we agree to support (her) claim for the (remaining) amount of $3.175 million.”

Rouson’s bill, which he filed in August, still needs to go before the Senate Appropriations Committee and Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment, and General Government.

Fernandez-Barquin’s identical version, which he filed in October, is still set for House hearings before two committees and two subcommittees.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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