Originally Published June 7, 2019
Robert Allan Smith spent his day off doing what he loved: Tinkering with his motorcycle.
He took it out for a test ride, pulling out of his driveway onto DePauw Avenue. He saw an Orange County work van approaching the intersection.
He thought the van’s driver saw him. Then, he was hit. It was Sept. 7, 2006.
Almost 13 years later, on May 23, the Florida Legislature approved a claim bill awarding Smith $750,000 from Orange County as compensation for his injuries in the motorcycle accident — including the loss of his right leg.
“It’s just been a long road. Thirteen years,” Smith said. “I lost my leg when I was 32 and young and active. I played sports, enjoyed cycling, hiking, rock climbing and all that changed instantly.”
Smith sued Orange County after the crash and, in 2012, a jury awarded him more than $4.8 million, including about $1.75 million for his suffering, $2.4 million for future medical expenses and nearly $689,000 in lost wages. But state limits on civil judgments against government entities meant he’d never see that amount.
Years of negotiating with the county resulted in the final settlement approved by state lawmakers last month.
“It’s good to see some light at the end of the tunnel now,” Smith said.
Crash predated camera system
On that day in 2006, the county maintenance worker driving the van, Lynn Godden, failed to make a complete stop at a stop sign and crossed directly into Smith’s path. Godden told investigators he saw Smith but mistakenly thought the motorcyclist was heading away from him.
Smith suffered a fractured leg, a broken pelvis and sacrum and damaged internal organs. He underwent multiple surgeries, including an above-the-knee amputation of his right leg.
He filed suit against the Orange County Board of Commissioners, claiming his accident was a result of Godden’s negligent driving.
Orange County Risk Manager John Petrelli wrote in an email to the Sentinel there were mitigating factors in the crash, though he didn’t elaborate. Since before the crash, Petrelli said the county has required employees to take driver education training every three years.
In 2007, the county started testing the DriveCam program, which is designed to change driving behavior and improve accident accountability by allowing management to monitor county drivers with cameras in the cars. The program was formally implemented in 2008.
Today, the cameras are installed in 1,655 of the county’s 2,200 vehicles, including vehicles from code enforcement, animal services and fire-rescue, according to a fact sheet provided by Petrelli, who said the county has invested about $2.2 million in the system.
Petrelli estimates the DriveCam system has saved the county about $1.3 million in the past three years by reducing accidents. As of 2008, county vehicles were averaging 200 accidents per year, but by the fiscal year 2017-2018, the average had fallen to under 100 accidents, he said.
But the technology came too late to help in Smith’s case.
The accident upended Smith’s life, said his attorney David Moffett. He couldn’t go back to work at Harley Davidson, a job he had just started before the accident, and is now in a wheelchair.
Smith, a U.S. Army veteran, was financially supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Moffett said, helping pay for medical expenses and his education at Full Sail University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and graduated at the top of his class.
Claim bills rarely approved
Moffett said suing a government entity, like Orange County, is a long and difficult process that often doesn’t deliver desired results.
In Florida, to get a monetary judgment from a government agency above a certain amount, the suit must first go through a jury trial, then the Florida Legislature must pass a claim bill, instructing the agency to pay the award.
But many claim bills don’t pass in Tallahassee — especially if the case is unsettled, meaning the agency is opposed to paying. In Smith’s case, it took three years for the bill to pass, after the price was negotiated with Orange County.
“Rob and I are so thankful for Orange County for no longer opposing the claim bill and moving toward a compromise,” Moffett said
He added that many claims never make it to Tallahassee, because lawyers will accept the sovereign immunity cap — the maximum amount of money government agencies can be required pay for a claim without needing authorization from the Legislature.
At the time of Smith’s accident, the cap in Florida was $100,000.
Petrelli said the only other claim bills from Orange County that have been approved in the past 10 years were linked to a notorious witness-murder plot in 2012.
That September, Bessman Okafor, a defendant in an Ocoee home-invasion case, shot three people – two of them witnesses in the case pending against him – during a second invasion at the same home. The family of Alex Zaldivar, a 19-year-old who was killed, received a claim bill of $200,000, while two surviving victims, siblings Brienna and Remington Campos, each got $100,000.
Okafor was being monitored by a county run home-confinement program at the time of the second attack, but had numerous curfew violations that were not reported to the judge in his case.
Smith now lives in Lakeland and works as a graphic designer.
The claims bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Victor Torres, said he was “elated” to see the approval of Smith’s compensation.
“Deep in my heart I’m glad we were able to get over the finish line and help him,” said Torres, D-Kissimmee. "It was a tragic accident that should have been settled many moons ago.”