tampabay.com

How to explain the loss of a child in 3 minutes?

A husband and wife must wait for the chance to tell legislators what their pain means.

By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published April 20, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Halfway to the state Capitol, Michelle Allen couldn't help thinking:

I wish Brooke could have taken this trip with us.

Then she remembered:

Brooke isn't here anymore. It's because she's not here that we're making this trip.

Allen and her husband, Chris, had left St. Petersburg just ahead of rush-hour traffic Wednesday afternoon. They drove nearly 300 miles, hoping that once they reached Tallahassee, they could convince legislators they should be paid $1.3-million in compensation for the 2005 wrongful death of their 8-year-old daughter, Brooke Ingoldsby.

They knew they would have only about three minutes to make their case. What they didn't know was how in the world to accomplish that.

"If I were coming before them to talk about taxes or property insurance, I'd have no problem," Michelle Allen said. "But to try to explain to them in three minutes what kind of child Brooke was, that's just impossible."

Allen remembers the morning of Feb. 11, 2005, as if it were yesterday.

She drove Brooke to her bus stop at 90th Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N. Brooke kissed her cheek and said, "I love you, Mom," before sprinting toward her bus.

The next time Allen saw Brooke, she was in the emergency room at Bayfront Medical Center. Brooke had suffered lung and liver damage, broken bones and serious head trauma after she was struck by an SUV as she tried to cross busy King Street on her way home from school.

The bus driver, who had never driven the route before, dropped Brooke off on the wrong side of the street. School officials later found out the driver had lied about the accident. He said he had written down incorrect information when he called a dispatcher for directions.

The school district would later admit fault, after the Allens had buried Brooke and affixed a statue of a sleeping angel on her gravestone.

* * *

The Allens first heard the term "special claim bill" about six months after Brooke's death, when they hired the St. Petersburg law firm of Ciarciaglino, Coyle and Gell to sue the district.

Deborah Gell explained that state law caps a government agency's liability at $200,000, which is what the district agreed to pay the Allens. Anything over that must be approved by the Legislature.

But Gell said it's extremely difficult for victims to be compensated for acts of official negligence. While lawyers argue special claim bills are the only way clients can get justice, some lawmakers consider it inappropriate for victims of accidents or their survivors to petition legislative committees for financial relief.

In fact, Gell told them, the Legislature might not even decide to hear the case. If it did, the Allens would get little more than 48 hours notice to appear in Tallahassee to testify.

Once there, they would only get about 15 minutes. And after lawyers spoke, that would leave the Allens about three minutes.

* * *

Allen says she was asleep, dreaming about Brooke earlier this week, when Gell called to tell her a Senate committee would hear the case on Thursday.

Suddenly, she realized: We're really doing this. After all this time, it's really going to happen.

The next day, Michelle, 30, and Chris, 29, thought about the December hearing in Largo, when they appeared before two administrative law judges, the first step toward bringing a special claim bill to the Legislature.

During testimony, they learned Brooke's body had nearly been crushed by the 2-ton SUV, and that the impact had shattered her cervical vertebrae. They also heard from the school district's routing coordinator that the accident could have been prevented if the driver had followed instructions.

Sitting through the hearing was like reopening a wound barely healed, Allen recalled.

She braced herself for the next round.

* * *

The Allens spent Wednesday night at a hotel a few blocks from the Capitol. Before going to bed, they asked the question they had already asked a thousand times: What will we say?

If she had the time, Allen thought, she'd like to tell the legislators Brooke slept in a bunk bed with a pink cover surrounded by Lizzie McGuire posters. That she loved the beach and her older brother and her baby sister. That her generous spirit always reached out to those less fortunate.

Instead, on Thursday morning, Allen grabbed a piece of hotel stationery and started making notes. She was clutching the scrap of paper two hours later as she and her husband waited to testify.

At 2:45 p.m., Allen began to worry. The committee chairman had said the meeting would end promptly at 3:15, and there were still bills ahead of hers.

Finally, one of the special masters who had presided over the December hearing went to the lectern. Allen listened once more to the facts about Brooke's death.

With time growing short, Allen's lawyer suggested she not speak after all. The worst-case scenario would be if 3:15 arrived and no vote had been taken.

After the special master finished, the Senate committee chair called for public testimony.

"Waive and support," said Patrick Bell, the Allens' lobbyist.

"Waive and support," said Debra Gell, the Allens' lawyer.

"Waive and support," Allen said.

The chairman called the vote. The senators voted unanimously to support the bill.

Just that quickly, it was over.

* * *

A few minutes later, the Allens were outside, walking to their Pontiac Grand Am for the long ride home. Michelle Allen reached in her pocket, pulled out the slip of paper and read what she had written:

Thank the senators for hearing our bill. Tell them that every day when we get up, we know we won't see Brooke again in this lifetime. Let them know we're praying for changes in the school district's transportation system so no other family ever has to go through what we've been through.

The Allens' bill still has a long way to go. First, it has to come to the floors of the House and Senate and pass both chambers by majority vote. Then it has to go to the governor, who can either sign it into law, allow it to pass without his signature, or veto it.

Or it might not go anywhere at all.

In that case, the Allens vow, they'll begin again next year.