Paralyzed Jacksonville teen hoping for claims bill

By Associated Press , Kumasi Aaron - Reporter/The Morning Show anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville City Council urged Gov. Rick Scott and Florida lawmakers to pass a claims bill that would allow the city to pay an 18-year-old who was paralyzed when a tree limb fell on him.

Sovereign immunity limits a city's liability to $200,000 per individual even though Jacksonville agreed Aubrey Stewart was due $3.5 million after he was paralyzed him from the chest down.

Numerous complaints had been filed, including by Stewart's father, about the rotting tree before the incident. But because the city had lowered its public works budget, nothing was done until it was too late.

The City Council on Tuesday passed an emergency resolution regarding Stewart and the claims bill. It was sponsored by all 19 members of the City Council. Councilman Stephen Joost said he proposed the resolution after reading a Florida Times-Union story about Stewart's attempts to get paid the money the city agreed to pay him.

The legislative claims bill process allows Stewart to ask the Legislature to let the city pay more than $200,000. In this case, the city supported the bill, asking for the extra $3.3 million.

Instead of $3.5 million, Stewart was given $200,000. He is limited to a wheelchair and his home had to be modified to handle his needs. His family says they need more money.

Its still hard for Audrey Stewart to think about the tree falling on her son in front of their house. The stump is a painful reminder more than two years later.

"That will never get easier, because I was the one to come and see him pinned under the tree," she said.

Senate President Don Gaetz said he would not allow any claims bills during his two-year term as Senate president.

"We admitted liability," Joost said. "It was our fault. We owe $3.3 million and we need to pay it. Put yourself in this guy's place. He's in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. We ruined the man's life, and we need to pay him. It's that simple."

Gaetz had said he wouldn't support the claims bill process because it wasn't a process at all. Claims bills have been filed since 1833, but Gaetz said the bills rely more on emotion and who the lobbyists are than actual jurisprudence.

"It's simply a process that sometimes leans this way and sometimes leans that way and tends to be not fact-specific and not fair," he said earlier this month.

Gaetz's office issued this statement Thursday: "President Gaetz's responsibility as the Senate President is to refer all filed bills to their appropriate committees of reference, which he has done with each claims bill that has been filed during his tenure. President Gaetz has not prevented any claims bills from progressing through the legislative process. President Gaetz personally believes the claims bill process should be reformed, though at this time a proposal for such reform has not been brought forward in either the House or the Senate."

"It's inadequate," Joost said Wednesday.

The Stewarts' attorney, Raymond Reid, said the settlement has already gone through a rigorous process. The city general counsel agreed to it. The city's risk manager agreed to it. The City Council agreed to it. The mayor agreed to it. And now, the City Council is unanimously urging the Legislature to pass the bill.

"I'm completely blown away that the City Council would do this," Reid said. "On behalf of the Stewart family, we commend and thank the entire city council for its unprecedented and unsolicited emergency action."

"I was hoping that they would continue on fighting, you know, to make sure that we get it, because we're definitely going to need it in the long run," Stewart said.

One of the first things Stewart said she'd buy is a van Aubrey can ride in. Without one, Aubrey spends most of his time at home, and the family takes trips to the doctor on a Jacksonville Transportation Authority bus.

"It took us three hours just to get back on the bus to head home. That kind of stuff can be depressing," Stewart said. "But if we had our own transportation when we leave our doctors appointments, we get in the car and go home."

In previous years, Joost said, passing a claims bill hasn't been a problem.

"There's got to be some compassion, too," Joost said. "That's what's missing over there (in Tallahassee)."

Now it's up to the Florida Legislature to allow the city of Jacksonville to pay the extra $3.3 million. As Stewart waits for an answer, she encourages her son.

"I just tell him to stay hopeful that things will come through," she said. "And hopefully it will."

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