Shafted

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Thieman testified during a BSO professional compliance investigation later that he'd left Stacy's house on the night of March 3 somewhere around 10:30. At 10:36, Thieman hurtled along Oakland Park Boulevard in the westbound lane. Eric, traveling east on Oakland Park, turned left onto 117th Lane and passed in front of Thieman's cruiser. Thieman then did something inexplicable: He steered his speeding Crown Vic to the right, directing it toward the turning Concord. Thieman slammed his cruiser into Eric's Concord. On impact, the Concord skidded off the road across a grass shoulder, sideswiped a tree, and came to rest against a white wall that separated the neighborhood of Windward Isle from the highway. The passenger side of the Concord was crumpled inward, the front tire bent nearly parallel to the road. The windshield and rear taillight were smashed to pieces. When Thieman stumbled over, still dizzy and disoriented, Eric Brody was lying unconscious, partially upright next to the passenger side door, his legs beneath the steering wheel. Eric was wearing new black athletic shoes. The night was still and clear; little traffic was on the road. A neighbor leaned over the wall above with a cell phone, saying he'd called 911.

A few months after the accident, while Eric was still in a coma, Chuck and Sharon Brody went to lunch in downtown Fort Lauderdale with Lance Block, a 42-year-old civil trial lawyer specializing in catastrophic personal-injury cases and traffic-accident litigation. Block is the 2003 recipient of the Jon Krupnick Award for Perseverance by the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers for his ten-year fight on behalf of a disabled woman who had been sexually abused in a group home. The attorney's perseverance was a trait that would come in handy in the Brody case.

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.

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Gail Shepherd