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Pasco school bus crash robbed young man of normal life

Marcus Button looks no different than a lot of 22-year-olds. His blond hair is neatly trimmed and he wears dark jeans. Thin tortoiseshell eyeglass frames make him look bookish. "Most people say 'he looks okay,' " Marcus said. But Marcus, who is brain-damaged, also sees things that aren't there, such as camels walking beside him. Once, he caressed a dead pet cat named Kiki that he said he felt rub against his leg.

An inability to control impulses means he can't go to theme parks or other crowded places without trying to fight with strangers who accidentally brush against him.

He can't be taken to the grocery store without propositioning women. Once, Marcus went a month without brushing his teeth. His mother, Robin, now puts up signs to remind him.

"Most people at my age have their lives back," said Robin Button, 46, who raised two older sons in addition to Marcus. But she is housebound, having to quit her job as a drywall finisher to care for Marcus. Her husband, Mark, who is in the same line of work and has a bad back, works long hours to support the family, whose financial difficulties forced them to move into Robin's childhood home at a reduced rent.

Marcus wasn't always like this. He once went to Wesley Chapel High School, played video games with his friends, worked part time at Dairy Queen.

But his life changed forever the morning of Sept. 22, 2006. A public school bus pulled out in front of the Dodge Neon his friend was driving at State Road 54 and Meadow Pointe Boulevard. The crash left Marcus with severe head injuries. A brain scan shows a black spot the size of a baseball. Authorities determined the bus driver was at fault, and Marcus' parents sued the Pasco County School District. In 2009, a jury awarded the family $1.62 million, far less than the $10 million an economist for the Buttons said it would take to care for him over his lifetime.

Three years later, the Buttons have yet to recover the awarded amount. Because the school district is a government agency, state law caps payouts at $200,000 unless the Legislature approves a special claim bill.

"It's tragic to have a kid with just an average life, have it turn into a horrific life," said the Buttons' attorney, J. Steele Olmstead. "He just wants below average now, and he'll never even have that."

The probability of such a bill passing is rare, say those involved in the legislative process.

"If a government agency says 'We don't have the insurance,' there's not much that can be done," said state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who filed a claim bill on behalf of a Palm Harbor couple whose daughter who was shot to death while working as an informant for the Tallahassee Police Department.

He said agreements can be reached that allow agencies to pay awards over time, but lawyers don't like those.

"They want their money up front," he said.

Olmstead said that it's tough for sole practitioners like him. He ate $70,000 in costs for the case. He said a lot of "billboard lawyers" would be content to take that out of the $200,000 and leave the family with even less. But he said he wants to do right by the Buttons.

In 2011 and 20012, a claim bill was filed on the Buttons' behalf. Each time it is has gone nowhere.

This year, state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has filed yet another relief bill on behalf of the Buttons. It would allow them access to $675,000.

A companion bill has not been filed in the House of Representatives, but it's not required. Requests are then reviewed and recommendations made to lawmakers.

Some plaintiffs hire lobbyists to promote their claim bills and travel to Tallahassee to seek help. Robin said she and Marcus went to Tallahassee one year for a hearing but don't plan to return.

"They hardly asked us any questions," she said. Also, because of Marcus' lack of impulse control, he "doesn't do well" on long car trips.

Pasco School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said the district is monitoring the situation and will provide any information the state requests.

He called the Buttons' case "a sad situation." But because the district is self-insured, he said, "any award would have to come from general revenue dollars."

The district is looking at a projected $23 million budget hole for the next fiscal year.

"It's a funding issue," Alfonso said.

Olmstead said the jury awarded damages in all areas except medical care.

"Their lawyer said he'd have Medicaid," he said. "They gave him zero."

But Robin said Medicaid won't pay for some of the many specialists Marcus requires. It also won't cover dental care, which has been especially necessary as her son's brain damage makes him inattentive to hygiene. It also won't pay for all of the medications he has to take, from antidepressants to antipsychotic drugs to sleep aids.

Robin said a trust fund they established for her son has dwindled to $12,000. He gets $760 a month for disability and recently qualified for food stamps. She tried to get a job at a nearby restaurant, but Marcus proved too much of a challenge for her niece to watch.

"It's like dealing with a child in a 22-year-old body," she said.

Marcus said he has come a long way in controlling his temper through counseling, but life is frustrating. He has thrown chairs just because he thought someone's tone of voice had an edge.

It's not usually until after he calms down that he realizes what he did and apologizes.

Each day is the same, he said. "Long, drawn out and boring." He wakes up about 4 a.m., even though he'd rather sleep. He plays video games but can't focus on them because of his injury.

"I can play for about 15 minutes," he said. Walks with his grandfather provide a little relief.

Food doesn't taste as it should, he said, as he sipped a glass of tea that he said tasted bitter.

"Sweet is bitter, salty is sweet, and what is bitter tastes like barbecue," Marcus explained. He said he has no sense of smell, and his sense of touch doesn't work properly. "Everything feels like it has bumps on it."

Before the crash, he had hoped to finish high school, find work and get his own place. But his injury kept him from earning a regular diploma. It also left him partially blind, so he can't drive. He used to dote on his young niece and nephew, but now has no patience for children.

"I just want to get out of the house more than anything," he said.

Times photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report.

Pasco school bus crash robbed young man of normal life 02/02/13 [Last modified: Saturday, February 2, 2013 2:16pm]
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