National Trial Lawyer Diplomat and Executive Committee Member Gabriel F. Zambrano, and National Trial Lawyer Member David J. Zappitell, of Zappitell Law Firm of Delray Beach, FL, prepared for trial a catastrophic tractor trailer versus motor vehicle crash that resulted in the deaths of three minor children. The Spanish-speaking surviving father retained Gabriel F. Zambrano to investigate and prosecute the case under Florida’s Wrongful Death statute as Personal Representative of their Estates.
In the dark, pre-dawn hours of March 17, 2015, a mother of three children and her fiancée were driving on Florida’s U.S. 27 in rural Palm Beach County, Florida. A 45-foot-long sugar cane trailer had decoupled, or unhitched, from a tractor trailer and was blocking the southbound lanes of travel on U.S. 27. Having disengaged, and being without power, it had no operational lights. Federally required conspicuity tape was obscured, missing, covered in dirt or mud from sugar cane fields where it was regularly utilized. The operator of the tractor trailer had not yet returned to the disabled sugar cane trailer when the five occupants of the southbound vehicle encountered the disabled obstacle at highway speed. Without operational lights or power, and with retroreflective tape obscured, they violently crashed into the abandoned trailer.
Following their collision, a sole daily commuter who was attempting to overtake them in an adjacent lane also encountered the disabled trailer resulting in a violent crash and extensive damage to his Ford F-150 pick-up truck. He exited his vehicle to witness an unloaded 18-wheeler coming at highway speed toward the sugar cane trailer. The professional driver attempted evasive measures to avoid impacting the trailer and came to rest after striking the disabled Ford. The parties disputed the role of this tractor trailer in the aftermath of the original impact.
Tragically, the mother, age 39, and her three children, ages 14, 16 and 17 were pronounced dead on the scene. The passenger was catastrophically injured and transported via helicopter to a regional trauma center in Delray Beach, FL. The children were survived by their biological father who brought claims under Florida’s Wrongful Death Statute. The mother and catastrophically injured passenger were represented by separate counsel and the cases were consolidated for discovery purposes.
Plaintiff contended that the sugar cane trailer was not properly maintained by the owner, Okeelanta Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Florida Crystals Corporation. These allegations included a failure to comply with applicable Federal Motor Carrier Regulations imposed upon owners and operators as adopted under Florida law. Plaintiff also alleged that the tractor trailer operator was not sufficiently qualified or experienced to haul a commercial trailer which combined with poor maintenance and safety procedures in the resulting decoupling. Plaintiff also alleged the owner and employee operator of the unloaded 18-wheeler, a Brown Trucking Company rig from Lithonia, Georgia, was negligent in their operation of the tractor trailer on the morning of the violent crash.
The plaintiff claimed and discovery revealed sufficient evidence to grant a claim for punitive damages against the sugar cane trailer owner. The parties settled for an undisclosed amount days before a scheduled punitive damage proffer in which the court could have ruled on the plaintiff’s motion to amend the complaint to plead punitive damages.