Chad S. Smith was riding his bike to class on the evening of November 12, 2013. The sun was setting as he headed south on Northwest 13th Street toward the University of Florida campus.
There aren’t any bike lanes available on that stretch, so Smith, then 27, felt it was safer to ride on the sidewalk. This was a route the master’s student was comfortable taking, he said, since it was how he normally commuted to class.
But as he approached the corner of Northwest 13th Street and University Avenue, passing where a McDonald’s once stood, he went flying.
A Regional Transit System bus had lowered its wheelchair ramp onto the sidewalk and hit him.
“I sort of went head over heels. The bike flipped up, and I landed a few feet away,” he said. “I remember being on the ground, getting up quickly and just being in a lot of pain.”
There was a huge gash in his leg, which required about 20 stitches, and he broke a few ribs.
The bus driver should have seen him coming, Smith said. He had lights on his bike and the ramp was being lowered onto an area with multiple pedestrians. And after the incident, he said the bus driver “did the bare minimum” to make sure he was OK.
And so Smith opted to sue the City of Gainesville.
RTS surveillance video, posted below, captured the incident and the moments afterward.
His is just one of the 54 civil lawsuits and hundreds of insurance claims that have been filed against the city since fiscal year 2010, costing the city about $7.6 million in settlements and legal fees.
A majority of these lawsuits are negligence or auto negligence claims, like Smith’s, where plaintiffs are seeking monetary compensation for the harm they claim city employees caused. Others include breach of contract and indebtedness, loss of consortium, declaratory judgment, malpractice and employment discrimination. (Mortgage foreclosure claims, on which the city is sometimes listed as a defendant, were not included in this analysis.)
All the lawsuits examined as part of this story were filed by January 2010, though because of Florida’s 4-year statute of limitations on negligence claims, incidents could’ve dated back to 2006.
How Gainesville’s insurance works
Steve Varvel, the city’s risk management department director, said the city is self-insured, so it pays for insurance claims on its own instead of using a third party company.
The city uses a general insurance fund to pay for these claims, which is funded by city taxpayers and ratepayers of Gainesville Regional Utilities, Varvel said. The fund’s budget varies each year, he said, but fiscal year 2019’s budget is $6.729 million.
Although the general insurance fund is a “one-stop shop” to pay for all the claims against the city, Varvel said GRU reimburses the fund for utility-related claims, since it does not pay a premium toward the fund as other government agencies do.
GRU’s claims were included in the $7.6 million figure.
The city anticipates the estimated liabilities for the year to budget the general insurance fund. Varvel said the fund typically has a surplus in the account, so the city doesn’t have to find additional money from other government funds.
The surplus is kept in the general insurance fund for future claims, he added. Some of the money is used to pay for proactive loss control measures such as safety equipment.
How does this affect taxpayers?
The money used to supply the general insurance fund could have otherwise been used for other government services, Varvel said. There is a direct positive impact between lowering the cost of claims and the cost of these government services, he added.
The city is also only self-insured for claims that fall within its sovereign immunity limits.
Sovereign immunity is a Florida statute that limits how much government agencies can be forced to pay in lawsuits. Varvel said the maximum amount an individual can receive for claims against the city is $200,000 per person and a total limit of $300,000 per incident.
The egregious case option
In cases where plaintiffs should receive more than what is allowed under sovereign immunity, the state legislature can pass a “claim” bill that waives its rights and direct the government agency involved to pay more than the limits imposed.
But that wasn’t often the case in the lawsuits filed this decade.
For example, Meagan Lamothe sued the city for auto negligence in 2015 after she had been hit by an RTS bus near UF’s Fraternity Row the previous year. Lamothe accumulated over $460,000 worth of medical bills that were then submitted to the court, according to court records.
The City of Gainesville used its entitlement to sovereign immunity as one of its defenses. The parties eventually reached a settlement of $175,000, under the sovereign immunity limit. Lamothe could not be reached for comment, and the Orlando attorney who worked on her case did not respond to a phone call or email.
Varvel said the city has only settled one claim in the past 20 years that surpassed the sovereign immunity limits, which required excess money outside the general insurance fund.
Varying litigation outcomes
Is it worth going to court if there is a maximum amount a plaintiff can collect in damages?
Tinley-Elizabeth Collins thinks so.
In September 2010, Collins was stopped at a red light in the right-turn lane at the intersection of Northeast Eighth Avenue and Waldo Road when she was rear-ended by an RTS bus.
She said the bus slammed into her so hard it pushed her car up onto the curb. Collins initially felt no pain and did not think it was necessary to take an ambulance to the emergency room.
As the shock wore off, Collins said she began to feel severe shoulder, neck and head pain. She went to the emergency room the next day, and doctors found she had separated her thumb from her wrist and tore the rotator cuff in her shoulder, requiring surgery.
Collins said she required medical attention for years. Bills piled up. Since she was unemployed at the time of the accident, she did not have insurance and was unable to pay for a majority of these bills.
When she decided to sue the city, Collins described the process as difficult and frustrating. She said government officials “dodged her calls” and did not provide any information on how she could file a claim.
“I felt like they tried to take advantage of me,” she said. “I think they were just hoping I would go away.”
During the settlement mediation, Collins said the city claimed to be unaware of her lack of insurance, even though she said she made it very clear from the beginning. Collins believes the city awarded her more money because of the financial distress and frustration it had put her through dealing with the lawsuit.
Collins settled for $75,000, although she said her medical bills exceeded that amount. She said the money she pocketed after legal fees only lasted her about a year.
Collins said she still has issues with her wrist and headaches that she attributes to the accident.
“I just deal with it,” she said. “That’s what I have to do.”
Smith also agreed that it was worth it to sue the city, but not because of the monetary compensation he received. When he first filed the lawsuit, Smith said he didn’t think the city was going to try very hard to fight the case. And he wasn’t wrong.
The city first offered Smith a $1,000 settlement, which he rejected. But, after moving to Washington D.C., he said he didn’t want to deal with it anymore and accepted a $2,000 settlement.
Smith said he barely had enough money left over after attorney fees to cover his visit to the emergency room. In fact, he feels like he lost money going through the whole process.
“I definitely didn’t come out ahead,” he said.