Woman gets justice for husband’s death after 16 years

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Amie Stephenson stayed home that day with her 2-year-old daughter. She was eight months pregnant. Across town from her Avondale home, something spewed smoke into the air. Her phone rang later that evening.

It was a friend checking on her husband, Christian, because there had been a horrible wreck. She set the phone down, figuring her husband would call. She realized he wouldn’t when two Jacksonville police officers and a chaplain showed up at her door.

Christian Stephenson’s gasoline tanker had crashed and gone up in flames while swerving to avoid a pileup on the Hart Bridge Expressway. Two drivers crashed as they plowed through standing water. A third hit the puddle and hydroplaned. Stephenson’s truck followed. It jack-knifed, overturned and exploded.

In May 2001, she sued the Florida Department of Transportation for failing to clear a clogged drain that caused water to pool on the expressway that day. Now, 16 years later, she’s finally collecting a $1.1 million verdict a jury awarded in 2005.

“I was shocked because I had come to the realization in my mind that it would probably never happen. And there is a sense of justice in the fact that somebody’s acknowledged that they’re responsible,” said the widow, who now goes by her maiden name, Draiemann.

To understand why her family endured such a long wait is to understand how slowly justice moves when the state is asked to admit a mistake and politics get involved. Suing is easy. Getting the state to accept blame and pay up is the hard part.

“They don’t voluntarily give justice to people, no matter how egregious the negligence was and no matter how catastrophic the injuries were,” said Lance Block, a Tallahassee attorney and lobbyist who represents the family.

“Part of it is they don’t want to part with their money, and part of it is they want to send a message to the public and lawyers that represent injured people that they’re not going to settle cases,” added Block.

Part of the reason for the delay is sovereign immunity, a concept that dates back to English common law that said the king could not be sued. To shield the state from going broke, the law caps payments to victims of government negligence.

So even when someone successfully sues the state, the government only has to pay them up to $200,000. Collecting the rest means going to the Legislature, and navigating the arduous and costly ordeal of getting lawmakers to pass a claim bill.

The Stephenson bill was one of 11 claim bills approved by the governor this year after clearing the Legislature. Last year, only four claim bills passed. In 2015, there were 14. During the two years before that? Zero.

It took several years for the family’s wrongful death lawsuit, filed in 2001, to finally go to trial in March 2005. A jury later found the state’s negligence contributed to the crash and issued a $1.3 million verdict.

But most of that money was withheld because of sovereign immunity. The family’s claim bill was first heard in 2007, but it went nowhere. Year after year, it was refiled. And year after year, nothing happened — until this year.

“You try to move on, but you get yanked right back,” said Draiemann. “So it kind of keeps you in this constant state of mourning.”

Draiemann has tried to get her life back on track over the years. She remarried in October 2005 — though that marriage ended recently in divorce. In 2011, the family moved to Tennessee in search of a fresh start.

“It was just about trying to start over, but you quickly learn that it follows you,” Draiemann said.

Money from Christian’s life insurance policy dried up in 2006. By 2011, the family’s financial situation had gone from bad to dire. Draiemann was working full-time to support her children. But it wasn’t enough.

In 2015, she took out loans and went back to school for psychology. She got a job doing social work and graduated with a bachelor’s degree this past May. The job doesn’t pay a lot, she said, but it’s more than she was earning before.

Christian Jr., 16, will be a junior in high school next year, Draiemann said. Her eldest, Hailey, has since moved back to Florida to attend school and reconnect with her father’s family.

“While part of it has made them guarded, another part of having such a significant loss is it has made them very compassionate toward others,” she said.

Though she acknowledged the financial judgment would have been helpful defraying the cost of raising two children by herself, Draiemann said she’s grateful. For one, it means her kids won’t leave college encumbered with debt.

After waiting for nearly 17 years for justice, Draiemann said a change is needed to help others in the future. She hopes lawmakers will revisit sovereign immunity, and see how much it forces families to put their lives on hold.

“They make you feel unimportant, insignificant and that your loss was trivial,” she said.