MADEIRA BEACH — Julie Henning woke one morning last May with what figured to be a lovely Saturday ahead of her, warm and nearly cloudless. She had traveled from her home outside Washington, D.C., where she’s in charge of policy for the National Wildlife Refuge System, to a place her family owned here, her bicycle and kayak in tow.
She planned to spend part of the day paddling around Fort De Soto Park, she recalled. But first, she thought, she’d go for a quick bike ride — just a little down and back on Gulf Boulevard. It was still early, and she wanted to get going before traffic got heavy.
A hole in her memory opened up there, sometime around 8 a.m. on May 23. It began closing two weeks later. She was at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. She had multiple compound fractures, a crushed pelvis, eight broken ribs, a punctured lung and a traumatic brain injury. She had been hit by a garbage truck.
Henning was pedaling north in the Gulf Boulevard bike lane when it happened, according to a report from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. A City of Madeira Beach garbage truck was heading east on 129th Avenue. The driver, John Leppert, said he never saw her.
The city fired Leppert, who was cited for failing to yield and, upon being found guilty in November, charged a $618.50 fine. On Thursday, Henning filed a negligence lawsuit against the city. Her lawyer, Pinellas personal injury attorney Mark Roman, said they will seek $200,000 — the cap on damages in such suits against Florida governments — and then lobby the state legislature for a larger payout. That’s a longshot, Roman said, but Henning’s medical bills already add up to about $1 million.
Madeira Beach City Manager Robert Daniels declined to comment, saying that the city had not yet been served with the lawsuit. Leppert did not return a call made by a Times reporter to the phone number listed in his personnel records.
Public records obtained by Roman show that Madeira Beach officials were concerned about Leppert’s competence as a driver in the weeks before the crash.
“At times staff says they do not feel safe while working with John,” Jamie Ahrens, the city’s public works director, wrote in a May 11 email to other city officials. “That is why, it is our opinion that we have a pre-termination hearing and this will be John’s final warning.”
A written warning the city issued Leppert the same day outlined incidents in the months before the crash. In January 2020, he hit a tree, breaking one of the truck’s mirrors, blew out a tire when he hit a rock wall, and ran into a pole. In February, he was pulled from driving for a week “to clear his head and try and get him refocused on work.”
“John has also been told by staff multiple times to stay off his phone while driving, yet continues to use it,” the warning continued. “Lately John has not been paying attention to his surroundings, driving too fast, and at times the guys do not feel safe riding while John drives.”
Leppert would be re-evaluated come August, Ahrens wrote in another document. Twelve days later, he was crossing Gulf Boulevard, he told Sheriff’s deputies, when he heard a horrible crunch.
“I was just out riding my bike,” Henning said. “I didn’t do anything wrong … And all of the sudden, this horrible thing happens to me. And now I’m stuck with all of the effects.”
Henning spent about a month in the hospital, she said. When she was released, she still couldn’t go home: She had to use a wheelchair, and her house in Virginia had stairs leading to the entrance and a second-floor bathroom. She lived with friends who had accessible homes, then in a string of Airbnbs.
She’d taken pride in her active lifestyle, which kept her physically and emotionally fit, but her injuries left her helpless in a way she hadn’t experienced, she said. She couldn’t do her own laundry or grocery shopping. She couldn’t carry a cup of coffee from the kitchen to the living room by herself.
“I’m a very independent person, and it’s extremely humbling to not have control of my own life,” she said. “I had to let that go, and I just had to trust people, and maybe they got the right food at the grocery store and maybe they didn’t.”
She has traded her old pastimes — biking, kayaking, fishing, birding — for things she can do sitting down. She reads and crochets. She has, gradually, gone back to work. She still goes to physical and cognitive therapy, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and listens to her doctors worry about how her leg isn’t healing right.
“This is obviously a devastating, catastrophic injury case,” Roman said. “It’s about an almost-lost life, but it’s also about a completely devastated life. She doesn’t have the life she once had, and God knows if she ever will. She’s a fighter.”