It took Florida Senators less than a minute Tuesday to approve a $3.175 million payment to Donna Catalano, a Monticello woman who suffered life-altering injuries in a highway crash with a state of Florida employee.
The Senate OK’d legislation (SB 70) by St. Petersburg Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson, clearing the balance of a $3.375 million settlement to which Catalano and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services agreed in 2020.
Catalano sustained her injuries on June 26, 2019, when Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services worker Donald Burthe caused a near head-on collision on Highway 90 near the border between Leon and Jefferson counties. Catalano had just finished a nursing shift at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare.
“In addition to her permanent injuries and lifelong need for additional medical care, Mrs. Catalano … lost her ability to continue her active lifestyle and her ability to perform services essential to her role as an emergency room nurse,” Rouson said in a brief explanation of his bill. “The (Agriculture) Department is not contesting the facts of this case and willingly entered into a settlement agreement to compensate for the medical care, loss of income and past and present medical bills.”
Rouson’s bill is classified as a “claims bill” or “relief act,” as it is intended to compensate a person or entity for injury or loss caused by the negligence or error of a public officer or agency.
Claims bills arise when appropriate damages exceed what’s allowable under Florida’s sovereign immunity laws, which protect government agencies from costly lawsuits. While legislation is advancing this Session to raise payout caps under those rules, state law currently limits what can be paid without legislative action to $200,000 per person and $300,000 per incident.
Rouson’s bill passed in the Senate by a 34-2 vote. The two “no” votes came from Panama City Republican Sen. George Gainer and Gainesville Republican Sen. Keith Perry. Both opposed several other claims bills Tuesday.
Now all that is needed for the funds to reach Catalano is approval of an identical bill (HB 6509) by Republican Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin of Miami-Dade County that has reached the House floor.
According to a Florida Highway Patrol report, Burthe veered into oncoming traffic while rounding a curve, crashing into Catalano near Still Creek Road.
Both Catalano and Burthe, whom emergency personnel extracted from his vehicle with the jaws of life, were rushed to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital.
As detailed in Rouson and Ferandez-Barquin’s bills, the grisly crash caused significant harm to Catalano, including a rib fracture, multiple leg and arm fractures and facial abrasions. She still suffers from chronic pain, mental anguish, incontinence and is unable to walk without a cane or lift her right arm.
“She suffered a dozen traumatic injuries that resulted in several surgeries over nine days in the hospital, 77 days of inpatient rehabilitation and 42 days of outpatient rehabilitation,” Rouson said.
On July 10, 2020, Catalano sued the Agriculture Department. She and the state reached a settlement agreement about a year later. To date, the Division of Risk Management has paid her $200,000 — the maximum allowable without approval from the Legislature.