A long-sought settlement for a woman whose children suffered permanent injuries in a gruesome crash with a state trooper south of Ocala has received Gov. Ron DeSantis’ authorization.
The measure (SB 80), sponsored by Lady Lake Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, concerns Orlando woman Christeia Jones, whose three boys were no older than 7 when Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Raul Umana’s on-road lapse in judgment forever changed their lives.
Jones stands to receive $7.5 million, which is significantly less than the sum originally contemplated in the legislation state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved in early March.
Plant City Republican Rep. Lawrence McClure carried the measure’s identical House companion (HB 6515).
The 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. State law currently limits what can be paid without legislative action to $200,000 per person and $300,000 per incident.
DeSantis received and signed the bill Friday. He had until June 4 to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature in accordance with rules enumerated in the state Legislative Claim Bill Manual.
On the night of May 18, 2014, Umana, then 20, misjudged a U-turn on Interstate 75, striking a guardrail before cutting into oncoming traffic.
He collided with Jones’ car, which in the back seat 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 hit Jones’ car, an 18-wheel semi-tractor-trailer slammed into her vehicle from behind, crushing the trunk and rear seating. Jones’ car then flew off the road, struck a tree and caught fire.
The three children were airlifted to the University of Florida Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, where they received emergency treatment and heartbreaking diagnoses.
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 substantial 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 before 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.; each 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.
In November 2018, Jones 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.
Jones agreed in January to accept about 40% of the sum she and the state had decided was fair recompense: $7.785 million: $7.5 million, plus the initial award.