Two Florida residents have secured a $1.19 million verdict in their lawsuit over a late-night trip to a Miami Beach Burger King that ended with homophobic slurs, pepper spray, and an alleged beatdown at the hands of a fast food security guard.
A jury in Miami civil court found that Raymond Ortega, a longtime Miami Beach bartender, and Toni Llerena, a Florida drag performer, suffered long-lasting trauma stemming from the 2018 incident at the Burger King Whopper Bar on Washington Avenue.
During the melee, a Burger King employee called the pair "faggots," and a contracted security guard repeatedly punched Ortega, breaking his jaw and leaving him badly bruised, according to the lawsuit.
The award was entered on February 13 against the restaurant's then-security contractor, Legacy Protection and Intelligence Agency, which abandoned its defense in the case last year. Without any pushback from Legacy, the jury was tasked solely with determining the amount of damages to which Ortega and Llerena were entitled.
The duo's attorney, Matthew Ladd, tells New Times that his clients were blissfully shocked by the verdict.
"People see these court cases and the sums that come out of them, and the numbers almost become a news story in themselves," Ladd says. "But [Ortega and Llerena] are going to live with this experience embedded in their brain for the rest of their lives, and the jury assigned a value for that pain."
The jury granted $787,750 to Ortega, 33, and $357,700 to Llerena, 36, for mental anguish, humiliation, disability, pain and suffering and related emotional damages. An additional $50,000 was awarded to Ortega for medical expenses.
Ladd says he's exploring avenues to collect the judgment in light of Legacy's apparent lack of corporate assets.
"This was about respect and dignity," the attorney says. "Our clients wanted a jury to decide the damages. A cross-section of the community spoke pretty loudly."
The incident took place in October 2018 after Ortega, a gay man, and Llerena, a transgender woman, stopped by the Burger King for a late-night meal around 4 a.m. after a trip to the popular club Twist about a block away.
The Burger King employee approached and told the pair to leave a dining area so she could clean. Ortega questioned why they were being asked to clear out, as the restaurant was not scheduled to close.
In the ensuing dispute, the duo testified, the employee called them "fucking faggots." Ortega demanded an apology, and the parties exchanged profanities before the Legacy security guard deployed pepper spray, according to court documents.
"The Burger King security guard attacked both Ortega and Llerena, sprayed them with pepper spray, and then punched and struck Ortega multiple times... in the face, nose, and jaw," the pair's 2019 lawsuit stated.
Burger King's lawyers challenged the narrative, attempting to portray Ortega as the aggressor.
The fast-food giant successfully argued its way out of the case late last year, saying that it was not legally responsible for the security guard's actions because he was an independent contractor. Burger King also avoided liability on negligent hiring claims by presenting evidence that the fast food worker and security guard had solid employment records and had not been previously involved in major altercations.
Ortega, Llerena, and their legal team are challenging the court's decision to grant Burger King summary judgment, with an eye towards holding the restaurant responsible for paying the verdict sum.
Meanwhile, Ladd says he plans to go after Legacy's insurer, Mt. Hawley Insurance, to collect the amount owed. The insurer denied Legacy's claim over the incident and declined to provide the company with a defense in court, citing an insurance policy exclusion for incidents involving discrimination, according to Ladd.
Ortega and Llerena were well-known in the Miami Beach club scene when the violent incident went down. Llerena, who performs under the moniker TLo Ivy, made a name for herself with her fiery performances at Palace Bar and Azucar while Ortega worked as a bartender in the area.
Llerena is currently living in Orlando, though she still works in Miami.
"They weren't calling attention to themselves that night. They just wanted to sit at the table and eat their burgers," Ladd tells New Times.