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New claim stirs painful memories

For nearly two years, Michelle Allen has known only the most basic facts of her daughter's death.

She knew that 8-year-old Brooke Ingoldsby was struck and killed by an SUV after a school bus driver dropped her off on the wrong side of a busy road. She knew Brooke died three hours later at the hospital.

But the details are now seared into Allen's brain.

She has learned that her bubbly third-grader was nearly crushed by the 2-ton vehicle that hit her and that the impact shattered Brooke's cervical vertebrae.

And she now believes Brooke would still be alive if Pinellas County school officials had listened to another parent who warned them about dangers along the same bus route.

On Friday, Allen, 30, and her husband, Chris, 29, began the arduous process of seeking $1.3-million in a special claim bill from the state.

The Allens' lawyers presented information on Brooke's death to two administrative judges, who will submit reports to be considered during the 2007 legislative session.

"We felt that if we didn't do this, it would be like saying, 'It's done, it's over with,' " Michelle Allen said. "If we keep pursuing this, maybe it will force the district into making a change."

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The school district agreed last winter to pay the Allens $200,000, the maximum allowed under a state law that caps liability for school districts and other public agencies, after accepting responsibility for Brooke's Feb. 11, 2005, death. The district's insurance company agreed to pay $1-million more.

The family is pressing for additional relief to send a message that the transportation department "still needs to be fixed," lawyers for the Allens said at the start of Friday's hearing.

For four hours, they laid bare the extent of the department's troubles. Reams of testimony gathered from drivers and route supervisors, they say, revealed a system plagued at the time of Brooke's death by insufficient training, inconsistency in reporting safety hazards and a lack of written guidelines.

Michelle Allen cried softly as attorney Deborah Gell recalled the chaotic afternoon that Brooke was killed. The bus was more than an hour late. A substitute driver, unfamiliar with the route, dropped her off on the wrong side of the road at 90th Avenue N and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

Perhaps the most damning testimony came from Suzanne Charneskie, whose daughter, then 11, rode Brooke's bus. Charneskie said she had repeatedly asked that her child's stop along busy King Street be changed because she thought it was unsafe.

"When I finally got to speak to a supervisor I told him, 'Somebody is going to get killed at this bus stop,' " Charneskie said.

Frustrated that no one would listen to her, Charneskie said she started driving her daughter to school two weeks before Brooke was killed. Her words were the ones that grieved Michelle Allen the most.

"She tried to tell them," Allen said. "If it hadn't been Brooke, it probably would have been another child."

In videotaped testimony, former transportation director Terry Palmer said it was left up to bus drivers to determine if a road was hazardous. He said he had issued a memo to routers saying children should not cross multiple lanes of traffic as Brooke tried to do, but he said he couldn't remember when the memo was sent.

Routing coordinator William Barnett attended Friday's hearing and testified that the accident that killed Brooke could have been prevented if the driver had followed instructions. Even under the circumstances, Barnett said, the driver could have pulled the bus into traffic or laid on his horn to warn the girl she was about to step into the path of a car.

"I would say any accident is preventable depending on what circumstances led up to it," Barnett said.

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Shortly after Brooke's death, school superintendent Clayton Wilcox called for changes within the transportation department. A call center was created to monitor complaints. Bus drivers were encouraged to air concerns, and safety "auditors" were assigned to look for dangers along bus routes.

Near the end of Friday's hearing, the School Board's attorney addressed the Allens.

"I don't know if anyone from the district has said this, but we sincerely apologize for this tragedy and our part in it," Jim Robinson said. "We're very sorry."

Still, Robinson said, he disagrees with some of the allegations leveled against the transportation department. He did not elaborate, keeping with the school district's agreement to not oppose the Allens' claim bill.

Gell, the Allens' lawyer, said Robinson's objections should not affect the bill's chances. But that doesn't mean there won't be challenges.

In recent years, it has been extremely difficult for victims to be compensated for acts of negligence. Petitioners often are awarded far less than they seek.

Michelle Allen refuses to be deterred.

"If no change comes about," she said, "Brooke will have died in vain. That's why we feel like we have to keep going."

Q&A

Claim bills

What is a claim bill?

A bill that compensates an individual for injuries or losses caused by the negligence or error of a public officer or agency. Majority approval is required in both houses of the Legislature.

How many claim bills are filed each year?

About 30. Most claim bills are filed to recover damages in excess of the "sovereign immunity" cap of $200,000 in personal injury cases.

What must happen to a claim bill before it is presented to the Legislature?

A House Special Master on Claims and a Senate Special Master on Claims, lawyers employed by the House or the Senate who are familiar with the legislative claims process, conduct separate or joint hearings where both sides present live testimony and documentary evidence. What happens next?

The special masters make written recommendations to legislative committees. If approved, the bill advances to the floors of the House and the Senate.

What happens if a claim bill is passed?

The president of the Senate and the Speaker of the House must sign it and then send it to the governor, who has a limited time to either sign it into law, allow it to pass into law without signature, or veto it.

Q. What is a claim bill?

A. It is one that compensates an individual or entity for injuries or losses caused by the negligence or error of a public officer or agency. An injured party may recover damages even though the public officer or agency may be immune from suit. Majority approval is required in both houses of the Legislature.

Q. How many claim bills are filed each year?

A. About 30. Most claim bills are filed to recover damages in excess of the "sovereign immunity" cap of $200,000 in personal injury cases.

Q. What must happen to a claim bill before it is presented to the Legislature?

A. It is referred to a House Special Master on Claims and a Senate Special Master on Claims. They are lawyers employed by the House or the Senate in other capacities, but who are familiar with the legislative claims process. They may conduct separate or joint hearings.

Q. What happens at the hearing?

A. The claimant and the government entity can present live testimony and documentary evidence. The claimant is expected to produce evidence justifying both liability and damages.

Q. What happens next?

A. The House and Senate Special Masters each prepare written recommendations that are presented to legislative committees. If approved, the bill advances to the floor of the state House of Representatives and the Florida Senate. The Legislature usually dedicates time during the regular session to address claim bills.

Q. What happens if a claim bill is passed?

A. The president of the Senate and the Speaker of the House must sign it and then send it to the governor, who has a limited time to either sign it into law, allow it to pass into law without signature, or veto it.

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