Makenzie Nevarez, an abused baby girl who was brain dead six months after she was born, will never take her first step.
Never celebrate her first birthday. Never go to first grade, graduate from high school or walk down the aisle.
Juan Santos, the man arrested in her death, was handed a prison sentence that will keep him behind bars until March 2031.
But on Wednesday, a jury that had heard all the horrific details of Makenzie’s short life awarded her father and grandmother $2.7 million in damages five years after they filed a lawsuit against the Broward Sheriff’s Office alleging negligence.
The people who might have saved Makenzie from her tragic death failed her, the jury found.
Child protection investigators working for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the baby’s pediatricians and her own father and grandmother share in the negligence — though not equally, according to the jury’s verdict.
The bulk of the blame, 58% to be exact, falls on the shoulders of the Sheriff’s Office, the six-person jury decided after deliberating for more than seven hours over two days.
The father, Christopher Nevarez, shares in 36.6% percent of the blame; the pediatric group 2.7%; and the grandmother, Ann McClain, 2.7%, the jury decided.
Justin Grosz, the attorney for Makenzie’s father and grandmother, told the jury during closing arguments on Tuesday that $15 million would be a fair sum to account for the family’s pain and suffering.
Michael Piper, an attorney for the Sheriff’s Office, told the jury such a sum was outrageous.
In the end, the jury came up with its own number: $4.5 million.
Only two parties would be responsible for paying damages.
The Sheriff’s Office would be responsible for paying 58% percent of damages, or $2.6 million. And Personal Care Pediatrics, the group that employs the doctors who treated Makenzie, would be responsible for paying 2.7% percent of damages, or $121,500.
Together, that comes to $2,731,500.
After the verdict was read by Broward Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips and the jury had exited the courtroom, Mackenzie’s father and grandmother got teary hugs from their attorneys.
“They feel vindicated,” Grosz told the South Florida Sun Sentinel after the verdict was read. “The jury spoke. And we are grateful that they recognize BSO’s responsibility in Makenzie’s death. In Broward County, the Sheriff’s Office is the largest safety net in the protection of our children. And when they fail catastrophically, it’s the most vulnerable who are affected. And sometimes tragically so, as in Makenzie’s case.”
But no checks are getting written anytime soon.
In Florida, anyone injured by the negligence of a government agency can usually only get $200,000 in damages from a civil suit. Known as sovereign immunity, the law sets a cap on claims against a government agency.
To get paid the full damages, the family will need to petition the state Legislature for a claims bill and fight to get paid. And that could take years.
“We hope that Sheriff Tony will intervene in the claims bill process to ensure that there is justice for Makenzie,” Grosz said.
In June 2016, just two months after Makenzie was born, she was treated in the ER for unexplained choking. Two months later she was back at the hospital with a black eye. Each time, her mother claimed the injuries were honest mistakes.
But on Oct. 13, 2016, Makenzie was back in the hospital with leg pain. This time, doctors ordered X-rays and found fractures in her legs and wrist.
The ER physician called an abuse hotline that in turn contacted the Child Protective Investigations division at the Sheriff’s Office.
The assigned investigator came to the hospital that night, but only spoke with Makenzie’s mother, not the doctor or the father. After speaking to the mother, the investigator said it was safe for the mother to take Makenzie home.
Eleven days later Makenzie was back in the hospital with a skull fracture and catastrophic brain injuries. She died four days later, on Oct. 28, 2016.
Piper, the attorney for the Sheriff’s Office, praised the jury for coming back with what he called a fair verdict.
“After spending hours and hours to make a determination in this case, the jury weighed everything and did the right thing,” he said. “We feel the jury reached the right result in terms of apportioning fault. I think the jury’s verdict assigning almost 40% of the responsibility to the father speaks volumes as to the legitimacy of the claims bill in this case. The ultimate number we would have liked to be lower (than $4.5 million). But I think the jury worked extraordinarily hard to reach an equitable verdict in this case.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan