State declined to settle with I-75 victims, lawyers say
Published: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 8:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 8:53 p.m.
The victims of the deadly January crashes on Interstate 75 sought compensation from the state to avoid lawsuits, but were rebuffed by officials from Gov. Rick Scott on down, according to attorneys representing several of the victims.
The Florida Highway Patrol closed and then reopened I-75 early on the morning of Jan. 29, before smoke and fog led to crashes that caused 11 deaths and at least two dozen injuries.
At least two attorneys have sued trucking companies and other drivers involved in the crashes. Lawyers representing more than 18 victims have filed notices of intent to sue the highway patrol and other government agencies.
Several of those attorneys, including Daniel Glassman of Gainesville, said they tried in vain to resolve the claims and now litigation is likely.
"It was our group's hope to spare the families from having to painfully relive their losses and to avoid having to go after the State of Florida for mistakes ... that ended in the loss of so many lives and the severe physical injuries of so many others," the attorneys said in a July 30 letter to a state risk management specialist.
The state "has no interest in trying to resolve these claims" and wouldn't even address them until lawsuits are filed, the letter said.
Glassman told The Sun on Wednesday that he asked the state to reconsider, especially since he believes Scott "made assertions and promises" to the victims.
Atlanta attorney William Mitchell said the governor assured the family of his client, 15-year-old Lidiane Carmo, they would be compensated for their losses. Lidiane was the sole survivor of a crash that killed her sister, mother and father, who was a pastor. They were returning overnight from a religious conference in order for him to perform Sunday services at their Atlanta-area church.
In the wake of the crash, Scott visited Lidiane as she recovered at Shands at the University of Florida. Scott's spokesman, Lane Wright, said the governor only committed at that time to helping with the funeral arrangements for the family, Brazilian immigrants who were worried about being able to afford sending bodies back to Brazil.
Wright said Scott fulfilled the commitment by contributing to a nonprofit organization that was helping the crash victims. He declined to reveal the exact amount.
"He made a significant contribution out of his own pocket to help with the funeral arrangements," Wright said.
Mitchell called on Scott to help crash victims by supporting a measure, known as a claims bill, to compensate them for their injuries and losses. The Legislature's passage of such a bill would be the only way to circumvent a $200,000 cap on judgments awarded in lawsuits against state agencies.
A reasonable person would conclude that the capped amount would not compensate Lidiane for what she's endured, Mitchell said.
Wright couldn't say whether the governor would support such a measure without first knowing details.
Scott ordered a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into the crashes, which faulted the highway patrol for actions taken before reopening the roadway.
The highway patrol plans to release its response to the report Friday, which an official said would be its only response to its actions in the crashes due to the possibility of lawsuits.
In addition to possible lawsuits against the state, at least two attorneys have sued trucking companies involved in the crashes.
Gainesville attorney Jack Fine represents a family member of Vontavia Kiara Robinson, a 22-year-old Williston man killed in the crashes.
His lawsuit focuses on an owner and driver of a tractor trailer that stopped in smoke and fog on the southbound lanes of the interstate. The truck was rear-ended by two vehicles, including one driven by Robinson, which burst into flames.
Fine said the FDLE investigation made it clear that the highway patrol made a mistake in reopening the roadway, but the truck driver also bears responsibility for stopping on I-75.
"I think generally that's a bad idea on an interstate," he said.
Attorney Kenneth Sobel said his firm plans on doing its own investigation into the crashes, due to issues involved in getting evidence from the state.
He represents Jennifer and Michelle Deutsch, sisters involved in crashes in the northbound lanes of I-75.
He said state agencies have "stonewalled every attempt to access the data collected from the scene or disclose the details of their investigation.
"Their lack of cooperation is shocking and telling of a larger story that will ultimately only be uncovered through litigation," Sobel said.
Sobel also is suing other drivers on the roadway.
"We've sued every owner and driver," he said, adding that he thinks the trucking companies are responsible because they "basically parked their vehicles in the middle of the roadway."
Maria Trenzado, a St. Petersburg-based attorney representing one of those companies, said the Deutsch sisters are the only ones involved in the northbound crashes who sued other drivers. The others had claims settled through their insurance companies, she said.
"Usually that's what happens in these kind of cases," Trenzado said.
Bruce Kleinberg, a Sarasota lawyer who represents injured man Jeffrey Mitchell, sent a letter of intent to sue the state back in February and said he was surprised when the state asked for medical records and bills.
But he hasn't heard anything since, he said, and the state's position may have very well changed. He thinks the state should offer money to victims as a goodwill gesture instead of preparing for litigation.
"I look at the facts and the evidence. I think I have a very strong case, and that's what's concerning me," he said. "The FDLE report has given us the road map, so how are you going to argue about the damages? There are people who are dead. What's the defense?"
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