WEST PALM BEACH — A 26-year-old West Palm Beach-area woman was awarded nearly $500,000 by a jury last week for knee and back injuries she suffered when a Palm Tran bus driver hit the gas before she had a chance to sit down, sending her sprawling.
But despite the Palm Beach County jury’s decision, Ruth Arizpe will only be able to recover $200,000 from the county-run bus system unless the Florida Legislature agrees she deserves more. Under the state’s sovereign immunity laws, that is the most governments can be forced to pay for wrongdoing unless state lawmakers pass what is known as a claims bill, lifting the cap.
Attorney William Johnson, who represented Arizpe, said she has already racked up $45,000 in medical bills and faces tens of thousands of dollars for surgery she needs to repair her knee and a disk in her back that were damaged during the February 2015 fall on a bus’s rain-soaked floor. She works as a retail clerk and doesn’t have health insurance, he said.
She faces an uphill battle to get the Legislature to agree to let the county pay the full amount the jury said she deserves, he said. In recent years, the GOP-led legislature have been loathe to approve claims bills.
“At the end of the day, who knows what this client is going to get?” he said.
During the roughly four-day trial, Assistant County Attorney Sara Lindsey argued that the bus driver had a schedule to meet, Johnson said. Waiting for passengers to sit down would cause delays. Johnson countered that safety should come first.
Siding with Johnson, the jury found the county negligent. It awarded Arizpe $869,000 - more than half for medical expenses and the rest for pain and suffering. But jurors also found that she was 45 percent responsible for her own injuries. That cut the award nearly in half, to $478,000.
Lindsey wasn’t immediately available to comment on the verdict or whether the county would appeal.