TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Aubrey Stewart was standing next to his family's car three years ago when a massive branch from a city-owned tree suddenly broke and crashed down on him, breaking the then-15-year-old's spine and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Jacksonville officials had been warned about the rotting tree, so they quickly reached a $3.5 million settlement with Stewart's parents to pay for his care and to make their home wheelchair accessible. But most of that money has never been paid.
Under Florida law, any claim over $200,000 against the state or a city, county, school district or other entity must be approved by the Legislature — even if the money would be paid by a local government or its insurance carrier.
Florida Senate President Don Gaetz says the state's system for paying claims against government entities is broken. He says it relies too much on emotion, and sympathetic claimants or those who hire prominent lobbyists fare better than others who might have more valid cases. The Panhandle Republican has refused to let Stewart's or any other claims bills be heard in the Senate during his two-year term as president, which will end later this year.
"We've really not had a process that allowed claims bills to be heard on their merits," Gaetz said. "Instead it's been who the lobbyist is, who the sponsor is and how the biscuits were in the majority or minority office that morning."
Despite his concerns, Gaetz has introduced no legislation to reform the system. His refusal to make any exceptions has angered not only the Stewart family but the Jacksonville City Council, which recently voted 19-0 to urge Gaetz and the Legislature to pass a bill.
Jacksonville had received four complaints over eight months about the tree before the branch fell on Stewart.
"It should be paid," Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown said of the settlement. "We want to make sure that this kid is taken care of for life. He needs to be cared for and $3.5 million is a reasonable settlement to make sure that he's cared for and I think the Legislature should approve."
Joseph Stewart, Aubrey's father, said even $3.5 million is unlikely to cover the lifetime expenses for his son, now 18. Aubrey, the youngest of six children, has had 12 surgeries to repair a shattered spine, broken ribs and bleeding on the brain. The medical bills topped $1.6 million last July, and economist Frederick Raffa has told the Stewart family's lawyers that Aubrey's future care expenses could reach $9 million to $11 million.
The teen now wears diapers and must use a catheter and a colostomy bag. His parents must change him, bathe him and tend to bedsores and other complications. Joseph Stewart quit his job as a truck driver for Top Choice Poultry to help his son after his wife hurt her back moving their son.
A simple trip to the doctor becomes an all-day affair as the family's Ford Windstar minivan is not equipped for people with disabilities. Aubrey must take a public bus to his appointments, which means hours of waiting.
"We can't get enough for what we've been going through," Joseph Stewart said. "I didn't say been through, I said going through. And we don't know what we're going to face later. We're trying to survive because we don't know what's going to happen two years from now, 20 years, 30 years. And it still won't be enough. We're going to have to do what we've got to do. He's 18 but he's still a child because he didn't get a chance ..."
The Stewarts live in a modest peach-colored one story home without a front yard on a dead end street. The living room walls are covered with family pictures, including several of a young, smiling Aubrey — one wearing a football jersey and anther posing with a basketball. He has always been big but was athletic. Aubrey played quarterback and receiver for his dad's Inner City Warlords football team. He loved to fish and eat pizza and hamburgers. Aubrey hasn't been interested in fishing since the accident and barely watches sports on television anymore. His friends don't come around and he fights depression daily. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
School is a priority in the Stewart household, but Aubrey's education has been interrupted: He's still in ninth grade. The family is optimistic now that his mother, Audrey, found an online program that allows him to take classes four days a week. A teacher visits for two hours every Wednesday and another comes every other Friday.
Because Aubrey's wheelchair can't fit through the door, the front porch was converted into Aubrey's bedroom — hanging on the wall is a poster that reads, "Relax, God is in control." The house also needs a new ramp and the remodeled shower is still not big enough.
"He kept asking, 'Why did this happen to me?'" his mother said. "You never know. I just believe God does things how he wants to do it, when he wants to do it.
"I hope he can be independent one day. But you can't do it without funds to be able to teach him how to do things he can learn how to do and will be able to do. Professionals can give him the help that we can't give him."
Associated Press reporter Brendan Farrington contributed to this report.