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Family of man killed in 2015 can pursue own settlements, city settles with estate

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A wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Sarasota and two police officers has been settled with the estate of a man killed in 2015, with a Sarasota judge ruling that the man’s mother and two children can pursue their own claims.

The May 2017 lawsuit came two years after John Kaafi, 33, died at Sarasota Memorial Hospital after he was beaten and stunned by officers while trying to escape, according to previous reporting by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Joanne Soucy, Kaafi’s mother, alleged in the lawsuit that “the conduct of the officers and policies of the Sarasota Police Department directly caused the injury and ultimate death” of her son, according to court records.

Court records from Aug. 31 indicate a total of 12 individual settlements were submitted — three to the Estate of John Kaafi, three to Soucy, and three each to Kaafi’s two children.

The three settlements by the city of Sarasota and the two officers to the Estate of John Kaafi were accepted 16 days later by Soucy, who acted as a representative of the estate, court records show.

The city proposed a total settlement of $493,500, which represents a full and final settlement and does not include an amount for punitive damages. Both former officer Juan Jaimes and officer Adam Arena proposed a $250 settlement.

On Oct. 5, the defendants sent a settlement check naming the Estate of John Kaafi as the “claimant,” according to the court document with the judge’s decision.

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Court documents to approve the settlement filed on Oct. 27 said the settlement was in the best interest of the Estate of John Kaafi and all known beneficiaries.

“This settlement does not affect the remaining claims of the survivors,” the court document states.

Following the acceptance of that settlement, a memorandum was filed Nov. 4 on behalf of Soucy and Kaafi’s two children to allow them to continue with their own separate claims.

The memorandum was followed by two separate hearings in November where Attorney Bradley Bell, on behalf of the city and the two officers, argued the settlement was a lump sum agreement, and the survivors could not continue on without the estate.

Attorney Anthony Manganiello, representing the estate, Soucy, and the two minor children, argued that each of his clients received their own settlement proposals and had a right to pursue their own claims.

“In an apparent misguided attempt at a ‘gotcha moment,’ the defendants believe that they have tricked the administrator of the estate into also eliminating the individual claims of the mother and minor children of a man killed in police custody because she accepted a reasonable settlement as to the separately and distinct claims of the estate,” the memorandum filed by Manganiello states.

Manganiello further argued that Florida’s Wrongful Death Act clearly separates the rights of the estate and survivors to recover damages.

The act aims to efficiently manage the claims of those affected, so instead of multiple parties filing various claims, it limits it to a single claim by a personal representative who will recover damages for the estate and survivors. Yet, if the estate’s claim reaches a settlement or is dismissed, the survivors can still pursue their own claims, the memorandum states.

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As of noon Tuesday, Bell had not returned calls for comment on the judge’s decision.

After the hearings, Circuit Court Judge Stephen Walker decided that while the lawsuit against the city and two officers by the Estate of John Kaafi is now settled, Soucy and the two children “may proceed forward unaffected by this settlement and dismissal,” according to his decision filed on Jan. 5.

Walker stated in his decision that it was only two days prior to the first hearing that the 12 individual proposals were characterized as “lump-sum proposals for settlement.” This was after Soucy, on behalf of the estate, had accepted the settlement.

Additionally, Walker said that in all 12 proposals, the language used did not inform Soucy or the two children that “their acceptance of one proposal would somehow impact the other eleven.” If the city, Arena and Jaimes had intended for the other proposals not to be able to continue without the estate, then they should have included such language in the proposals, Walker states in his decision.

While Walker found that the settlement was in the best interest of the estate and all known beneficiaries and that the case by the estate against the city, Jaimes and Arena is dismissed, the settlement won’t affect the remaining claims in the litigation, according to short documents.

When reached for comment Monday, a Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter received an email from a paralegal working in Manganiello’s office stating that they did not have a statement for the decision but wanted to ensure it was clear that the settlement was only for the estate’s claims.

“The separate wrongful death claims brought by each of the surviving mother and two children remain pending in the circuit court and are set for trial in July 2023,” the email stated.

Gabriela Szymanowska covers the legal system for the Herald-Tribune in partnership with Report for America. You can support her work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America. Contact Gabriela Szymanowska at gszymanowska@gannett.com, or on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Sarasota judge approves partial settlement against city of Sarasota