Saturday, May 26, 2018
Public safety

Severely injured by a Pasco sheriff's deputy, woman waits for justice

TALLAHASSEE — Jennifer Wohlgemuth was driving home one night when her life was shattered by a police car racing through a dark intersection.

Seven years later, the victim of traumatic brain injury, she spends her days at home in New Port Richey and waits for help from the Florida Legislature.

Jennifer was in the wrong place at the wrong time when her Honda was broadsided by a Pasco County sheriff's patrol car on a high-speed chase without its siren or lights on. At age 21, tall and striking, she was so badly injured that part of her brain had to be removed.

Today, she again is in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Pasco Sheriff's Office says it can't afford to pay $8.6 million in damages ordered by two courts that found a sheriff's deputy was at fault, and her fate is caught up in politics in the state Capitol.

The Legislature adjourned last month without ordering that she receive justice, because her lawyer and the county can't agree on a form of payment after sporadic talks that ended last year. The money would pay for treatment that might help Jennifer's poor memory and vision and would compensate the family for the deputy's negligence.

"Her future lies in the midst of a claims bill right now," said Jennifer's mother and only caregiver, Traci Wohlgemuth. Her voice broke as she told senators in February how her daughter can remember things only for 10 minutes.

"All the dreams she ever had . . . it will never happen," she said.

Jennifer has the IQ of a 10-year-old. She can't be left alone, and her memory loss appears in unusual ways: She'll shower and dress, and a while later, take a shower again.

In Florida, state and local governments are immune from paying large damage awards, even after a judge finds they are at fault. Only the Legislature can order damages be paid by passing a claims bill.

The Legislature passed 11 such bills this year, the most in a long time. Most were the result of heavy lobbying or had powerful lawmakers on their side. Jennifer had neither.

The Senate approved Wohlgemuth's claims bill 35-5, but nobody championed her cause in the House. Some Pasco lawmakers said they knew little about the case, and in a Capitol where lobbying muscle matters, no one was hired to lobby for its passage.

A lobbyist's fee in a claims bill is a fraction of the lawyer's fee in the case.

Late in the legislative session, the family's lawyer, Frank Winkles of Tampa, sought a meeting with Pasco's most influential legislator, Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who's slated to become House speaker next fall. The meeting never happened.

"I've never met with the family (or) the attorney," Weatherford said. "I've never had a chance to look at the facts of the case."

Weatherford said county officials told him the claim would be such a financial burden that it could force layoffs of deputies on an agency that has gone through several budget cuts. The damages total more than a tenth of the sheriff's $84 million budget.

"You're talking about taking resources away from the very department that protects my two little daughters, and all the other people in my community," Weatherford said. "There's also justice in this world, or there should be."

Weatherford promised to meet with the family and learn about the case before the 2013 legislative session.

Winkles questioned whether politics played any role in the bill's demise.

A lawyer for the Sheriff's Office who lobbied against the claims bill, Jeremiah Hawkes, was a staff member in the House speaker's office when Marco Rubio was speaker.

So was Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, who emphasized he wants to help the family.

"We are willing to sit down and work out a fair settlement," Nocco said. Forcing Pasco to pay $8.6 million at once "would be devastating to public safety in Pasco County," Nocco said.

Nocco said Winkles refused to discuss a payment plan. Winkles said that was not true, but he declined to discuss details of what he proposed.

"We offered a structured settlement four different times," the lawyer said. "We always were amenable to that."

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, also a speaker-in-waiting from Pasco, works for a law firm that represents the Sheriff's Office, but he said he had no involvement in the Wohlgemuth case. Corcoran noted that many other claims bills failed in 2012, and that they must be proposed repeatedly before passing.

Weatherford said Hawkes' and Nocco's past ties to the House played no role in the defeat of the bill.

"I don't think that necessarily holds any more weight than the fact that we would listen to a constituent of ours who has been wronged," Weatherford said. "There's a balance there."

The family will try again next year, but another potential obstacle lies ahead. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who's in line to become Senate president next fall, is a health care expert and former school superintendent who opposes claims bills.

He said he's "viscerally" uncomfortable with being forced to play judge and jury and award damages in cases of horrific negligence, and said he will seek guidance on reforming the claims bill process.

"I don't like claims bills," Gaetz said. "They depend too much on who your lobbyist is, who your sponsor is. . . . I think there are too many variables."

Times staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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