Pensacola, Florida
Friday November 28th 2014

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Legal Liability and Sovereign Immunity

by Scott Satterwhite

Life can change in an instant. This is a life lesson learned all too well when a city-employed driver struck and hit Paul Galusha, sending him to the hospital and ruining his business.

Galusha was traveling west on Gadsden Street when the accident occurred. Before his accident, Galusha was a self-employed woodworker who created handmade furniture in the Pensacola area. According to Galusha, on July 28, 2011, a city of Pensacola Facilities Maintenance truck hauling a trailer was heading north on 12th Avenue. “The truck ran a stop sign and made no attempt to stop,” Galusha said.

Galusha said he had no time to react. The maintenance truck hit Galusha with such force that the car he was driving was totaled. Making matters worse, the car belonged to his wife. Galusha’s wife, Valerie George, is a musician and professor of art at the University of West Florida, whose car doubled as an “art piece” and mobile recording studio. She used the vehicle to travel the country recording unknown musicians Alan Lomax-style.

While the first thought that went through Galusha’s head was the imminent destruction of his wife’s “prize possession,” the next thing that went through his head was an excruciating pain.

“The car accident resulted in an almost instant headache [for her husband],” George said. But unlike most headaches, the pain didn’t go away—neither physically nor mentally.

After numerous trips to the doctor’s office, a neurosurgeon finally diagnosed the cause of Galusha’s headaches. The doctor told him the ligaments in his neck were so stretched and torn that “his skull was literally lobbing around on his spine, pressing on the arteries leading to the brain,” George said.

As a result of his head injury, Galusha suffered memory loss, inability to focus, balance problems, cognitive impairment, high blood pressure, and extraordinary and constant migraine headaches.

Galusha’s pain was so extreme that his wife felt compelled, “out of desperation,” to take him to the ER numerous times after watching him lie on the floor, vomiting because of the intense pain. Because of the debilitating nature of his injuries, Galusha soon put his woodworking business on hold.

Staying home only compounded Galusha’s problems when his personal workshop, left mostly vacant since his accident, was robbed. Thieves stole thousands of dollars of tools, woodworking equipment and even his wife’s musical instruments. The robbery forced Galusha to close his shop, sell his valuables, and survive off of his wife’s salary and the generosity of friends.

While robbers stole his equipment, Galusha feels the city driver faulted with the accident stole his livelihood. The driver, an employee of the City of Pensacola driving a city-owned vehicle, was immediately cited by the police as being at fault. The driver was given a citation for running a stop sign, but little compensations has come since. As for damages to pay for all of
Galusha’s medications, doctor visits, trips to the ER, visits to the Mayo Clinic and loss of work: nothing.

To date, the City of Pensacola has not admitted fault concerning the accident. According to Galusha, the City of Pensacola has dragged out the case for several years using an article in the Florida constitution that allows for the state to waive sovereign immunity to maximize the government’s liability. Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that prohibits lawsuits against the government without its consent. When the state waives its sovereign immunity, it places a monetary cap on damages. In Galusha’s case, the maximum possible settlement is $100,000—none of which the city has agreed to pay.

“This seems like a good deal to most,” George said about the liability cap. “But in cases like his, resulting in over $220,000 in medical bills alone, it’s nothing.” These estimates only cover medical expenses and do not touch the several years of absent wages or his growing legal expenses. “It would take much more than the $100,000 to put our life back in order,” George said.

The first problem, however, is not the liability cap but simply getting the city to admit fault.

“You would think if [the city government] were honest and reputable, it would accept responsibility,” said personal injury attorney Alistair McKenzie. Besides his personal practice, McKenzie serves as the Regional Vice President of the National Lawyer’s Guild and has fought the city numerous times in court. McKenzie said these liability cases are unfortunate, but very common.

“Any person who does something wrong to another person should accept responsibility to avoid going to court,” McKenzie said. He pointed out the legal expenses of a protracted lawsuit hurt the taxpayer most of all. “The longer the city drags [a legal liability case] out, the legal costs grow on both ends. It costs the citizens of Pensacola to litigate these cases out in the courts.

That they do not [accept fault] shows an attitude of a government that doesn’t care about its citizens,” McKenzie said. The government’s tactic, according to McKenzie, is to “drag these cases out because they want to send a message out to its citizenry that if they challenge the government, they will make it painful for you.”

But pain is a subject that Galusha and George have become very familiar with since the accident. Recently, Galusha underwent a surgical procedure that alleviated some of the pain caused by the incident. “It was a frightening and expensive surgery, but worth it,” George said. “Unfortunately, the head and neck pain are still with him, all day every day, but it is more manageable.”

In the meantime, Galusha and George continue to fight their battle with the city in court, asking friends and supporters to pressure the city government to, in George’s words, “do the right thing.” While Galusha and George hope for an apology from the City of Pensacola, as well as a meaningful settlement, they’ve asked the public for help. George started a “Go Fund Me” campaign to help replace the tools stolen in the robbery and pay their most outstanding medical bills.

To Galusha and George returning to their livelihood shouldn’t be the responsibility of friends and supporters, but of the party at fault in the accident. “I want the city to participate [in society] the same way its citizens do” Galusha said. “We have to have uninsured motorist insurance to protect ourselves from someone without insurance. Do we need to insure ourselves against our government?” Although the complexity of their case is similar to many other sovereign immunity cases, Galusha’s response is simple. “I want [the city] to pay their bills.”

Tamara Fountain, Communications Administrator for the City of Pensacola, was unable to comment on this case as litigation is still pending.

If you would like to help Paul Galusha, please visit: http://www.gofundme.com/a9lxdw
To learn more about sovereign immunity (without having to get hit by a government vehicle), read the State of Florida Legislative Claim Bill Manual at https://www.flsenate.gov/PublishedContent/ADMINISTRATIVEPUBLICATIONS/leg-claim-manual.pdf.