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Child Dies, FL Admits Fault, Millions Owed

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Robinson family
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Matthew Robinson loved to have eggs for dinner.
But they were out the evening of November 4, 2010. So the 10-year-old and his brother Mark walked out of their Kissimmee apartment and headed across the street to the Kangaroo convenience store.
While crossing the street to come home, a city bus made a left turn into the crosswalk and hit the two boys. Mark Robinson grabbed a hold of the bike rack on the front, and crawled out from the bus.

But the back tire crushed Matthew Robinson to death.

Sharon Robinson dashed out of her apartment and found her son under the bus tire. In photos, you can see the crushed carton of eggs and bottles of soda next to the green Lynx city bus. Matthew’s shoes poke out from under a yellow tarp.

“I had looked over and I seen a figure,” Sharon said. “I figured it was Matthew. They had put a yellow tarp over him. And when I seen that, I just kinda knew that was that.”

Witnesses said they saw the driver of the bus, 63-year-old Fernando Vega, screaming and pounding his fists on the side of the bus after the accident. It was his eighth accident he had while a driver for Lynx, and his seventh preventable accident.

Lynx admitted fault and agreed to a $3.2 million settlement before going to trial. Officials from Lynx declined to be interviewed for this story but have paid the Robinson family $200,000. Under sovereign immunity laws in Florida, that’s the most a government can pay on its own.

Lynx wants to pay the remaining $3 million owed to the family; it even has the money set aside in its budget. Families like the Robinson's are awarded multi-million dollar settlements in cases against city or state governments every year. But often the families don’t get the money. 

But before it can do that, the Florida Legislature has to pass what’s known as a claim bill.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit The Robinson family
The Florida Channel
Mark Robinson at the grave of his brother, Matthew

Every case is its own piece of legislation. There are 31 bills in the 2015 Legislative session that starts today.

In many cases, the governmental body involved either has agreed to a settlement or a jury has awarded damages. But because the process is so difficult, it can take years for anything to happen – if anything happens at all. Most families abandon the process and settle for the $200,000.

Because the process is so difficult, and so frequently unsuccessful, oftentimes the cases are the most egregious.

For example, a severely disabled woman was raped and impregnated while living in a state licensed group home in Orlando. Or the case of a Polk County man who spent seven years in jail because of a police officer’s typo on a report.

“That whole claims process is a little bit embarrassing,” said Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Sebring, and an emergency room doctor.

“Doesn’t that seem inherently unfair?” Pigman said. “It seems like the kind of process that rewards cronyism and connections. And I’m sure there are many people who don’t have the wherewithal to combat that, to work through that terrible system, but yet they’re very deserving of some compensation.”

It’s been two years since the last time the Legislature passed a claims bill.

Even then, most of the time, families only get a fraction of what they’ve settled for. Historically, the legislature has only paid about one dollar for every $5 in claims. There are nearly $74 million in claims bills built up.

Many times, families hire a lobbyist to shepherd their bill through, said Joseph Little, University of Florida’s law school professor emeritus.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Pending claims bills for the 2015 Legislative session

“It becomes a political process which as you know is not always a pretty process,” Little said. “And certainly is not always an equal process in terms of everybody having an equal shot of getting a claims bill passed.”

This session is Orlando Republican Andy Gardiner’s first term as Senate President. He promises everyone will get a fair hearing.

“I just have always had the position of not saying no to every claims bill,” Gardiner said. “There are some very legitimate (ones). But then I will say there are some that will come forward that members will have a problem with for various reasons.”

Gardiner wasn’t familiar with the Lynx case or the Robinson family. So he doesn’t know that four years later, Sharon and Mark Robinson still grapple with Matthew’s death.

Sharon Robinson has high blood pressure, anxiety and, severe depression. Mark suffers from pain because his back is out of line.

“I don’t think I can say what I want to say,” Sharon said. “It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s not fair at all. And they really just need to look at things and change how they do things.”

The family’s attorney is cautiously optimistic about the chances for their claim bill to get passed this legislative session.

Abe Aboraya is a reporter with WMFEin Orlando. Health News Florida receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.