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Tree limb that fell on woman will cost Tampa taxpayers $75,000

TAMPA — City Hall will pay $75,000 to a woman who said she was struck and hurt by a falling tree limb as she walked along a Palma Ceia street.

Mary Heabel, 54, sued the city, saying that on May 9, 2010, she was in the public right of way near W Santiago Street and S Concordia Avenue when a large limb fell on her.

Heabel's lawsuit, filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, contended that the tree was on city property and was "rotted and hazardous," but the city had failed to inspect it, monitor its condition, maintain it or trim it, leading to the accident.

Heabel's lawsuit did not describe the nature of her injuries, though it said they would be permanent and lead to a future impairment. She was treated at Tampa General Hospital and discharged the day she was injured. Court pleadings indicate the tree was later removed.

On Thursday, the City Council unanimously approved paying Heabel $75,000 to settle the case. The city denies liability, but city attorneys concluded a jury's award could cost taxpayers more if the city took the case to trial and lost.

Heabel's suit did not identify which city departments would have been responsible for trimming the tree, but the settlement comes as City Hall tries to improve its maintenance of public rights of way.

Until last month, Tampa's Clean City division was responsible for reducing overgrown vegetation, litter, graffiti and illegal dumping on 355 miles of roads and medians as well as on city-owned lots. But an audit released in January concluded that Clean City did not keep records ensuring that properties were being maintained on schedule and failed to respond to requests for service in a timely way.

In the ensuing shakeup, four Clean City officials left their jobs, Clean City was merged with code enforcement and Mayor Bob Buckhorn brought in a retired police major to run the combined operations.

Buckhorn said this week he didn't know anything about Heabel's case, but "particularly if it's a city tree and a city right of way and it's presenting a hazard, then we've got to go deal with it. … Those are the kinds of things we need to take care of."

In other business, the council:

• Agreed to pay $37,500 over four years to an unidentified company that is considering whether to build a $2.2 million life sciences regional headquarters in North Tampa. The company, which is also said to be considering Missouri and Texas, would create 75 new jobs paying an average of $47,581 annually to be eligible for the money. Along with Tampa's contribution, the company stands to receive $37,500 from Hillsborough County and $300,000 from the state of Florida.

• Gave its final approval to a ban on new Internet sweepstakes cafes and to set new rules for 13 existing cafes in the city.

Cafes that already have sweepstakes computers mimicking casino-style slot machines can continue to do business, but they cannot change locations, add machines, allow minors, serve alcohol (except for one cafe that already has a city permit to do so) or display signs suggesting that there is gambling on the premises.

Violations can be prosecuted as misdemeanors punishable by up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail. The city also can seek to impose code enforcement fines or go to court for an injunction to shut down a business using illegal sweepstakes machines.

The City Council has talked about tightening regulations on the sweepstakes cafes for more than a year, but the final vote came as the Legislature discussed banning them altogether. The legislative action follows last week's resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll and the arrests of owners of dozens of Internet gambling centers as a result of a three-year investigation of Allied Veterans of the World, based in Jacksonville.

Still, several council members were skeptical about what might emerge from the Legislature. Frank Reddick and Lisa Montelione, for example, said they would favor banning existing sweepstakes cafes if the Legislature does not. Mike Suarez said the city needed to tighten its rules and see what develops in Tallahassee.

"I don't put my trust in the Legislature when it comes to this particular issue," he said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Tree limb that fell on woman will cost Tampa taxpayers $75,000 03/21/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 21, 2013 11:48pm]

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