13 notices of lawsuits filed in I-75 crashes


Multiple crashes on fog- and smoke-shrouded Interstate 75 in late January resulted in 11 deaths. The state has received several notices of intent to sue because of the crashes.

Rob C. Witzel/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 9:33 a.m.

The state of Florida is facing the possibility of more than a dozen lawsuits over a series of deadly traffic crashes on Interstate 75 in January.

Eleven people were killed and more than 20 people were injured when their vehicles crashed Jan. 29 in heavy fog and smoke from a Paynes Prairie wildfire. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement later released a report critical of the state Highway Patrol for actions taken in closing and then reopening I-75 before the crashes.

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which oversees the Highway Patrol, reported Tuesday that it has received 13 notices of intent to sue over the crashes. Julie Jones, executive director of the department, told the Florida Cabinet that the patrol's investigation of the crashes and its response to the FDLE report would be released Friday.

She said the department is waiting for the State Attorney's Office in Gainesville to complete its homicide investigation for possible charges to be filed. The Highway Patrol will not comment on its actions related to the crashes because of the possibility of lawsuits, she said.

"We'll let the crash reports and the response to the FDLE report stand on its own," she said.

The notices are letters from attorneys based in Gainesville, other Florida cities and Georgia who are representing people injured in the crashes and relatives of those killed. They include Lidiane Carmo, 15, sole survivor in a van returning from a church conference in Orlando.

The group in the van was part of a largely Brazilian church outside Atlanta. The group was returning so that Lidiane's father, a pastor, could conduct Sunday services. The lawsuit is filed on behalf of her father, mother and sister, all of whom died.

A church member in another van, Juliana Lima, 29, is part of a separate notice. Her attorney, Jackson Adams of Orlando, said in the letter that Lima was thrown into the van's windshield, needed emergency plastic surgery and suffered spinal injuries.

"The decision to reopen I-75 was clearly negligent, as these catastrophic accidents took place in such a short time after the decision was made," the letter said.

Under state law, victims face a $200,000 cap on judgments awarded against a governmental entity. The Legislature can pass a bill allowing a higher amount to be awarded.

West Palm Beach attorney Scott Smith, who specializes in cases involving commercial motor vehicle accidents, said such measures have been rare under Gov. Rick Scott. Smith, who isn't representing any of the I-75 victims, said lawsuits for an amount higher than the $200,000 cap might be pursued against trucking companies with drivers involved in the crashes.

"There is a legitimate claim against these trucking companies," Smith said.

The crashes happened Jan. 29 around 4 a.m., about 35 minutes after the interstate was reopened. There were 25 vehicles involved, including cars that plowed into tractor-trailers stopped on the road in the dense smoke and fog. It is believed to be the deadliest traffic accident in state history.

The FDLE report found that the Highway Patrol failed to implement changes pledged after a similar string of crashes in 2008 when smoke and fog shrouded I-4 in Polk County. The changes included training troopers in a weather index used to predict fog.

The report also identified problems on the night of the I-75 crashes, including poor communication about the Paynes Prairie fire and a failure to monitor changing conditions. One FHP trooper said he advised against reopening the interstate but was overruled.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com.

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