Nearly eight years after a Florida state trooper’s carelessness caused a grisly highway crash resulting in the permanent injury of three young boys, one chamber of the Legislature has approved a $7.5 million payment to their mother, who was driving the car.
The Senate on Tuesday OK’d a bill by (SB 80) by Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley clearing the long-sought funds to Orlando woman Christeia Jones, whose three boys were no older than 7 at the time of the crash.
“This (legislation) will resolve this long, sad story,” Baxley said in a brief summary of his bill.
On the night of May 18, 2014, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Raul Umana misjudged a U-turn on Interstate 75 south of Ocala. The then-20-year-old trooper struck a guardrail before cutting into oncoming traffic.
He hit Jones’ car, which in the backseat carried her sons 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 into her vehicle from behind, crushing the trunk and the rear seating. Jones’ car then flew off the road, struck a tree and caught fire.
The three children were airlifted to University of Florida Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, where they received emergency treatment and heartbreaking diagnoses.
Baxley’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.
Baxley’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 Jones is approval of a bill in the House. Republican Rep. Lawrence McClure sponsored the House version.
Senators amended Baxley’s bill Tuesday to make it identical to the House version.
The damage to Jones’ three sons was severe and life-altering.
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 also is 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 has not responded to inquiries by Florida Politics as to whether Umana still works for the agency. His LinkedIn page lists him as still being a state trooper.
The amount to be paid to Jones has changed substantially since November 2018, when she and the Florida Highway Patrol reached an agreement for $18 million, the amount both parties concurred a jury could have reasonably awarded her if the case went to trial.
Attempts in prior Sessions to deliver relief to Jones, who has received $285,000 to date, died in committee.
In January, Jones agreed to accept about 40% of the sum she and the state had decided was fair recompense: $7.785 million, representing $7.5 million plus the initial award.