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Lawmakers Back Payment In Death, Injury Cases

Florida Legislature
Florida House of Representatives
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Saying the Florida Department of Children and Families didn't do its job, state lawmakers last month approved paying $3.75 million in a 2011 child-abuse case that drew national headlines.
But the planned payment in the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona and injuries suffered by her twin brother, Victor, was part of a broader effort this year by lawmakers to compensate people for injuries or deaths caused by actions — or negligence — of government agencies.

In many of the claim bills this year, sovereign immunity limited payments to $200,000 or $300,000. But with approval from lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott, payments can stretch into the millions. Here are brief descriptions of 10 claim bills approved during the recently completed session, with details gleaned from the bills:

BARAHONA CHILD ABUSE: In a case that shook the state's child-welfare system, the decomposing body of Nubia Barahona was found in February 2011 in the bed of her adoptive father's pickup truck parked off Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County. Her brother, Victor, was alive, but authorities said he had been doused with toxic chemicals. An investigation said the Department of Children and Families had failed to prevent abuse of the children, who had been in the foster-care system before they were adopted. The department agreed to a $5 million legal settlement and paid $1.25 million. Lawmakers passed a claim bill (SB 18) directing payment of the remaining $3.75 million to Victor Barahona and the estate of Nubia Barahona.

DEVELOPMENTALLY DISABLED WOMAN RAPED: A 22-year-old woman with developmental disabilities was living in an Orange County group home in 2002 when she was raped and impregnated by the husband of the home's owner. The woman, whose disabilities included autism and cerebral palsy, later gave birth to a baby who was put up for adoption. A settlement was reached in a lawsuit that alleged the state negligently supervised the group home. Lawmakers passed a claim bill (HB 6501) directing payment of $950,000 that will be managed on behalf of the woman, identified only by the initials J.D.S.

FSU PLAYER'S DEATH: Devaughn Darling was a freshman football player at Florida State University when he collapsed and died during a training session in February 2001. Darling's family filed a lawsuit alleging that Florida State was negligent in its supervision of Darling, who had been diagnosed before his death with sickle cell trait. The family and the university reached a $2 million settlement, with payment of $1.8 million dependent on passage of a claim bill. Lawmakers passed a bill (HB 6515) directing the university to pay the $1.8 million.

GIRL SEXUALLY ABUSED: In August 1995, the Florida Department of Children and Families removed a 14-month-old girl, identified by the initials L.T., and her infant brother from their mother's custody because of inadequate care. The children were placed in the home of a great aunt and uncle. About a year later, the great uncle was accused of a sex crime against a 13-year-old girl and later pleaded no contest to committing a lewd, lascivious and indecent attack on a child. He was placed on probation and required to register as a sex offender, but the Department of Children and Families allowed him to return home and subsequently recommended long-term placement of L.T. and her brother in the home. In 2005, L.T. ran away and said she had been repeatedly sexually and physically abused. A lawsuit filed on L.T.'s behalf led to a settlement, and lawmakers passed a claim bill (HB 6511) directing the payment of $800,000 because of her injuries and damages.

INJURIES FROM GURNEY FALL: Miami paramedics responded in October 2012 after receiving a 911 call that Mary Mifflin-Gee was having seizure-like symptoms while in her vehicle in a parking lot. The paramedics remove Mifflin-Gee from the vehicle and placed her on a gurney but did not secure her. She fell off the gurney, struck her head and suffered a traumatic brain injury that led to her requiring round-the-clock care. Mifflin-Gee's guardian filed a lawsuit against the city of Miami, and a settlement was reached. Lawmakers passed a claim bill (HB 6521) directing the city to pay $2.3 million that would be placed in a special-needs trust for Mifflin-Gee.

PAINT MACHINE INJURY: Sean McNamee, a football player at Tampa's Wharton High School, was warming up before an October 2013 practice when he lost his balance and struck his head on a paint machine used to line the practice field. The machine had been improperly left in the practice area, and McNamee later had to be rushed to a hospital after his sister found him incoherent and acting strangely at home. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury that required multiple surgeries, and his family filed a lawsuit against the Hillsborough County School Board. A settlement was reached, and lawmakers passed a claim bill (HB 6503) directing the school board to pay $1.7 million.

PASCO DEPUTY CRASH: As 21-year-old Jennifer Wohlgemuth drove in the early morning of Jan. 3, 2005, a Pasco County sheriff's deputy slammed into the side of her vehicle at an intersection. The deputy had been involved in a high-speed chase but did not turn on his siren or lights and went through a red light at the intersection. Wohlgemuth suffered brain injuries and requires round-the-clock supervision. A judge sided with Wohlgemuth's guardian in a lawsuit filed against the Pasco County sheriff, and lawmakers passed a claim bill (HB 6533) directing the sheriff's office to pay a settlement amount of $2.6 million. Scott signed the claim bill last week.

SCHOOL BUS FATALITY: Aaron Beauchamp was riding in the back of a St. Lucie County school bus in March 2012, when the driver turned in front of a tractor-trailer rig. The boy, age 9, was wearing a seatbelt, but the impact of the crash caused him to be ejected from his seat and suffer fatal injuries. His mother, Lillian Beauchamp, a school principal, filed a lawsuit against the St. Lucie County school district. A jury found the district mostly at fault, and lawmakers passed a claim bill (HB 6529) directing the district to pay $1.5 million.

SUNLAND CENTER DEATH: Franklin Weekley, who was intellectually disabled and suffered from a seizure disorder, was admitted in November 2001 to the state's Sunland Center in Marianna. A little more than a year later, Weekley disappeared from the center and, after a search, officials concluded he had run away. But in 2004, a demolition crew discovered his remains in the basement of a building near the Sunland Center. Weekley's parents filed a lawsuit and reached a settlement with the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Lawmakers passed a claim bill (HB 6539) directing payment of $1 million to the parents.

TANKER DRIVER DEATH: Christian Darby Stephenson was driving a gasoline tanker across Jacksonville's Hart Bridge Expressway in August 2000, when another motorist hit a pool of water and hydroplaned. Stephenson tried to avoid colliding with the motorist and other vehicles, but the tanker jackknifed and exploded, killing Stephenson. Stephenson's widow filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Transportation because a clogged drain had caused the pool of water. A jury found the department partly at fault, and lawmakers passed a claim bill (HB 6519) directing the payment of $1,116,940.