Shafted

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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.

Chuck and Sharon came to the courthouse just a handful of times during the two-month trial. They testified themselves and brought Eric in to take the stand. With the help of a speech therapist, Eric answered questions about school and work. "You could see the jury gasping," Chuck remembers. "They could finally see how badly injured Eric really was."

The next time the Brodys showed up was on the final day, December 1, 2005. The jury took five hours to deliberate. "When the jury filed back in," Chuck recalls, "they said, 'We find the defendant, BSO liable, on all counts.' Then they started in with the money figures. So and so for lost wages. So and so for future care. When they added it all up, it was $30.69 million."

BSO was found 100 percent negligent. It was one of the largest verdicts in the nation that year.

Christopher Thieman was fired three months after the trial for falsifying police records. In what came to be known as the "Powertrac scandal" involving two other officers and their superiors, Thieman was found to have invented confessions and attributed them to people he had never spoken to.

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BSO appealed the trial verdict twice during the next three years. It lost in the Fourth District Court of Appeals, and the Florida Supreme Court dismissed the case. In 2009, when BSO had finally exhausted its legal remedies, Block submitted the Brodys' claims bill to the Florida Legislature. In the years after the trial, Ranger Insurance Co. had been swallowed up by a series of larger companies: The claim was now held by Fairfax Financial Holding Ltd., a multibillion-dollar company based in Toronto. Fairfax is legally obligated to pay the Brodys, but instead, the company prepared to fight the claim.

The Brodys needed their trial settlement more than ever. Eric's health was deteriorating. The steady progress he'd made with speech and physical therapy had stalled or eroded. Eric's health care was now covered by Medicaid and Medicare. But the funds available for therapy changed from year to year. For three or four months at a time, Eric would get speech and physical therapy, and then the funding would dry up. His speech was becoming harder to understand. His mind wandered, and he started repeating himself. Both Brodys were still working full time. Even with an aide coming in daily, they were exhausted trying to care for him around the clock.

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Gail Shepherd