By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Block recommended that the Brodys request the policy limit from BSO's insurer, Ranger Insurance Co. At the time, he didn't know what the policy limit was. "It's up to you whether or not you want to accept it or go to trial," he told them. If it was a reasonable sum, he said, he'd recommend that they accept it. But there was a hitch: Florida's sovereign-immunity law protected public agencies like BSO from being sued for more than $200,000. For the Brodys to receive more than that amount from BSO's insurance policy, the Florida Legislature would have to pass a claims bill approving the payout. Sovereign-immunity law also protected Deputy Thieman from liability, since he had been acting within the scope of his employment. But Block thought the Brodys had an excellent case against BSO. The Legislature had approved many such claims, Block told them. It would be a fairly lengthy process, but he was confident.
"When I met with them," Block remembers, "Eric was still in a deep coma, and the Brodys had hardly slept in two months. They looked like zombies. We didn't know what to expect — whether Eric would come out of that coma and what kind of condition he'd be in if he did. So we delayed demanding their policy limits. But I didn't foresee the type of battle that we encountered. Reasonable companies offer their policy limits when they should if an injured party is willing to take it. Ranger took the position, 'You'll never get a claims bill through the Legislature.'"
In January 1999, ten months after the accident, Detective Bjorndalen filed the final BSO report on the accident. The report found Eric at fault because he had "improperly turned left" in front of Thieman's cruiser. The report also claimed that Eric had failed to use his seat belt.
"That report was baloney; I knew it would never happen," Chuck says now. "I taught my kids to drive, and none of them ever drove without a seat belt."
"We enforced that rule before anybody else," Sharon adds, "because we had a friend whose niece had been killed in a car accident. Sometimes I'd leave the house at the same time Eric did and drive a little behind just to watch him. Eric was really cautious on the road."
The Brodys filed suit against BSO in February 2001. Over the next several years, Block sent BSO's insurance company, Ranger, seven separate requests for the company to tender its $3 million policy limit. Ranger never responded. In conversation with Block, though, BSO's lawyers said they had recommended that the insurer settle the case. On January 16, 2003, the Brodys made Ranger an offer: They would drop their lawsuit in exchange for the $3 million limit. Again, there was no reply from Ranger.
On August 18, 2005, the day that Broward County Circuit Judge Thomas Lynch set the date for the trial, BSO's attorney, Michael Piper, finally responded for the insurance company. Seven years after the accident, they offered the Brodys the policy limit of $3 million.
Block had already spent $750,000 preparing for the trial, and Eric's health-care bills had reached $1.5 million. Letters of protection for all the services he'd received — the physical and speech therapies, the guardianship lawyers — meant that those fees would have to be paid after a settlement. The $3 million might have barely covered the expenses Eric had already incurred. "There would be no money left for him," Chuck says. "He'd have nothing." Eric's life-care plan alone — the cost to support him for the next 52 years — along with economic damages, was estimated at $12 million.
To win the case against BSO, Block knew he had three challenges: to prove negligence on the part of Thieman and BSO; to show that Eric was not at fault; and to prove that Eric was wearing his seat belt. Block had summoned a slew of experts to re-create the scene of the crash. Dr. Donald Struble, a former engineering professor specializing in collision reconstructions, along with Dr. Harry Snyder from Virginia Tech, testified that the crash would never have occurred if Thieman had been driving the 45-mph speed limit or if he had not steered to the right.
Block called seat-belt expert Stephen Syson, who definitively testified that Eric had been belted. Photos from the crash scene showed the unspooled belt hanging out the door. Rescue workers had testified they had never touched the seat belt. "There is no way," Syson testified, "that the seat belt is not going to be retracted after the accident if he's not wearing it." Syson also analyzed the exact location where Eric's head had hit the passenger door, explaining the forces that would cause Eric's body to slip from the shoulder harness.
Finally, Block hired Karco automobile safety lab in California to perform a crash test using a 1982 AMC Concord and a Ford Crown Victoria, exactly like the cars in the original accident. The test cost more than $100,000. After the reconstructed crash, the dummy, wearing its seat belt, ended up in precisely the same position that Eric had been found by paramedics on the night of March 3, slipped from its shoulder harness, its head impacting the passenger-side door almost exactly where Eric's head had hit.