Suits still likely against state over I-75 crashes
Published: Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 5:39 p.m.
In Gainesville hotel conference rooms several months ago, marathon mediation sessions were held for victims of the horrific series of crashes on Interstate 75 that killed 11 and injured dozens more on the morning of Jan. 29, 2012.
The efforts were successful. Upward of 40 lawyers for the families of those who died, for insurance companies and for the trucking firms involved in the crashes reached settlements. The emotional pain and expense of lawsuits were avoided.
But as the one-year anniversary of what is believed to be the deadliest crashes in state history arrives this week, legal action is still likely against one major player — the state of Florida.
“In spite of the fact that internal reports and official reports lay substantial blame on the state patrol for violating various policies and procedures, the state of Florida has not only denied any culpability, it actually has been indignant about engaging in any sort of dialogue to resolve these matters,” said Atlanta attorney Bill Mitchell. “The person with the state's risk management has essentially challenged — go ahead and sue us.”
Mitchell represents teenager Lidiane Do Carmo of Marietta, Ga., one of the most tragic stories in a litany of sadness from that early morning. Her mother, sister and father —a pastor — were killed. Lidiane was seriously injured.
Many of the claims against the private parties have been settled, though some are still active and could end up at trial, attorneys said.
But lawyers representing the families of those who died and those injured in the crashes are also zeroing in on the Florida Highway Patrol.
Florida's Division of Risk Management has received 34 notices of intent by attorneys to sue the state over the accidents. No suits have actually been filed. Under Florida's sovereign immunity statute, payouts by the state are capped at $200,000 unless the Legislature and governor approve a higher amount. The names of those involved in the accident who have filed notices are not public record under Florida law.
Meanwhile, no one from the division would speak with The Sun regarding the state's position on the suits or in response to criticism from attorneys.
FHP Capt. Nancy Rasmussen also said the agency will not comment on any legal action.
Lawyers said FHP failed to take adequate measures to gauge the likelihood of thick fog and smoke forming and to properly react to it when it did.
And they say FHP's past record of not complying with its own policies that were enacted after a similar smoke and fog incident in 2008 in Polk County that killed four and injured many more gives them little confidence that FHP will follow its guidelines implemented since last year's accidents.
Gainesville attorney Daniel Glassman represents the family of Christie Diana Nguyen, 27, who died in one of the crashes. He said a review by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement of the FHP's role in the incident was “scathing,” yet an FHP response in August denied any responsibility, instead faulting the drivers for not properly reacting to the changing circumstances.
Glassman added that the conditions that created the dense fog and smoke in 2008 and 2011 are bound to arise again. “It happens and it will happen again. There were things recommended (in 2008) for the health, safety and welfare of people who use our roads. Guess what? It was completely ignored,” he said.
“Nobody had any idea or warning what they were driving into. But the state of Florida knew. What happened? A whole lot of loss of life, millions and millions and millions in damages, and the destruction of families. All of it could have been avoided.”
Several of the accidents occurred when drivers of tractor-trailers suddenly stopped in the travel lanes as they entered a smoke-and-fog bank that survivors described as “a white blanket over the windshield.”
Negligence or wrongful death claims were filed. While the claims were separate, Glassman and Mitchell said attorneys for the victims joined together during the mediation sessions and ended up resolving most of those cases relatively quickly.
The sessions were sometimes hectic — given all the parties and attorneys involved — but led to resolutions.
Mitchell said victims were grouped into tiers. The top tier was passengers who had catastrophic injuries and/or died. Mitchell said the victims in this tier had no fault and their families got the highest settlements.
Litigation against the state will ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not more — and cause various agencies to point the finger at each other if those cases are not resolved, Glassman said.
Glassman said he is representing Nguyen's son. Nguyen graduated in 2010 from UF with a bachelor's degree in Asian studies and was planning to be a pharmacist. She was in a northbound car driven her boyfriend, Jason Raikes, 26, who was also killed.
“Numerous mistakes were made by certain trucking companies and certain drivers. Many have come forward and did the right thing in trying to resolve it,” Glassman said.
“The problem is, because of the amount of loss, there was no way to fully and fairly compensate all of the people. But many have come forward and really tried to accept their portion of responsibility. Some have not and there are still some claims.”
One private claim that has not been resolved involves the death of Vontavia Robinson, 22, of Williston, who drove into a pickup truck that had plowed into a tractor-trailer driven by Cynthia Sue Laird of Glen St. Mary.
Laird was southbound, according to FHP's homicide reports, and stopped in the travel lane when she came upon the fog and saw tail lights ahead. She was one of several drivers who got on their CB radios when they first smelled smoke or saw the deteriorating conditions.
Gainesville attorney Jack Fine, representing Robinson's estate, has filed suit against Laird; her employer, Terry White Trucking; and FedEx, which contracted the trucking firm to move packages.
So far, Fine said, the case is in the discovery process when records and documents are sought. Fine said the companies have not turned over requested information such as Laird's driver qualification file.
“I am going to get this stuff, but obviously they are going to make me go to a judge and use up the court's time to do it,” Fine said. “It is unfortunate that they are being what I would call unreasonably obstructionist under the circumstance of this tragedy.”
Sarasota attorney Ralph Marchbank, the attorney who is representing the trucking defendants, did not return phone messages from The Sun.
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