tampabay.com

Governor okays $1.3M in school bus death case

By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published May 23, 2007


A St. Petersburg mother still grieves over the death of her daughter, but the governor's promise of a 1.3-million settlement has brought relief that her legal battle is over.

Michelle Allen's 8-year-old daughter, Brooke Ingoldsby, died two years ago after she was struck by a sport utility vehicle after getting off her Pinellas County school bus. Allen prevailed earlier this month in getting a special claims bill through the Legislature and onto the desk of Gov. Charlie Crist.

Crist signed Allen's bill, along with several others, on Tuesday.

"It was the right thing to do, to sign that bill, " Crist said late Tuesday. "Your heart goes out to a family when something that sad happens."

Allen said that while nothing can compensate for the loss of a child, she's grateful that the governor supported her claim.

"The money doesn't really make it any better, " Allen said. "I won't get to see Brooke go to a prom or graduate or get married. But if we had just walked away, do you think they would do anything? I hope now the school system will make changes for other kids."

Brooke died at Bayfront Medical Center in February 2005, hours after being struck by the SUV as she tried to cross Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N at 90th Avenue in St. Petersburg. A school bus driver had dropped her off on the east side of 90th Avenue, despite instructions that said Brooke's stop was on the west side of the four-lane road.

The school district accepted responsibility for Brooke's death and agreed a year later to pay Allen $200, 000, the maximum allowed under a state law that caps liability for school districts and other public agencies. The district's insurance company paid her an additional $1-million.

District officials at the time pledged to "extend every effort" to assist Allen in recovering another $1.3-million through a claims bill submitted to the Legislature.

Allen's lawyer, Nicholas Fiorentino, had predicted Tuesday afternoon that Crist might sign Allen's bill by the end of the day. Pinellas School Board attorney Jim Robinson said he had been anticipating the governor's signature as well.

"As we said from the beginning, we recognize our liability in the case, " Robinson said. "We didn't want to put the family through protracted litigation and so we supported the bill."

Robinson said he would instruct the district's chief financial officer to release the $1.3-million as early as today. The money will come from the district's general operating budget, which includes a contingency for "unforeseen circumstances, " Robinson said.

Now that the bill has passed, Allen said she can turn her attention to looking for ways to try to improve the transportation system, which she insists "still needs to be fixed."

In the two years since Brooke died, she says, many people have come to her with "horror stories" about the transportation department.

"I don't think I'm the only person to fix it, " Allen said. "It will take parents and the School Board and the community working together.

"The thing we have to ask, " Allen said, "is how much are our children's lives worth?"

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.