The Return of Litigious Joe

Sit down with Joe Carollo's enemies and the insults can pile up pretty quickly. Depending on who's talking, you might hear the City of Miami's chief executive termed a back-stabbing opportunist, an anti-communist reactionary, a mean-spirited dolt, a vindictive egomaniac, or perhaps a plain old schizophrenic schmo.

And if that's not enough, here's one more for the list: lousy lover.

While calling the mayor's manhood into question would seem, excuse the expression, below the belt, the sobriquet comes courtesy of Carollo's wife of fifteen years, Maria. Miami's first lady, the mayor's second wife, threw out the charge in a lawsuit launched by the couple six years ago, after Carollo allegedly tumbled to the ground while climbing a household ladder. As a result of his injuries, the suit stated, “The plaintiff, Maria Carollo, has suffered in the past and will suffer in the future the loss of her husband's services, society, and consortium.” For those without a legal dictionary at hand, consortium in this context means sex.

To be sure, consortium claims have become standard legal hyperbole in cases such as the one the Carollos filed against Davidson Manufacturing, the Tennessee company that made the ladder, and Builders Square, where it was purchased. How better to bring a jury to tears (and earn big buck awards) than through lugubrious tales of a malfunctioning bedmate? But it is no joke. When it comes time to translate pain and suffering into dollar signs, veteran personal injury attorneys insist, jurors often are asked to take such tales literally.

In any event Carollo's suffering was not limited to the purported loss of virility. According to the seven-count complaint filed in Dade County Court in November 1994, the then-out-of-office pol also claimed “permanent” and “severe” injuries, “mental anguish,” “loss of earning capacity,” “loss of wages,” and, perhaps most revealing, the “loss of ability to enjoy life.” The Carollos, filing jointly, demanded an unspecified amount of damages in excess of $20,000, plus court costs.

In the wake of national and local headscratching about the mayor's repeatedly bizarre babble on national TV during the Elian crisis, New Times dug up the case, which eventually was settled. When we called the mayor recently to ask whether such suffering might explain his heroics on CNBC's Rivera Live and other venues, he was reluctant to discuss the accident. He gruffly brushed aside most questions, theorizing that former City Manager Donald Warshaw was masterminding an investigation of the case.

His injuries, he insisted, are real. He asserted that he sustained hairline fractures in two places on his right ankle, causing “a substantial loss of movement from right to left.” He said “one of Miami's better doctors” verified his condition. He declined to name the doctor. He also refused to elaborate on other injuries and incapacities or discuss his wife's involvement in the lawsuit. “Hasn't [New Times] attacked enough Cuban Americans already this week?” he asked rhetorically.

Miami attorney Leopoldo Garcia, who represented Davidson Manufacturing and Builders Square in the case, also declined comment. Builders Square filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a year ago and now is out of business. Davidson Manufacturing changed hands two years ago. President Warren Markweel, while intrigued by Carollo's celebrity status, says nobody at the company could recall the lawsuit. “We have an awful lot of these kinds of cases in this industry,” he comments.

According to court documents, the Carollos purchased a CUPRUM model 554-16 aluminum extension ladder from Builders Square on U.S. 1 in South Miami-Dade on July 28, 1993. Six months later, while puttering around the house one Friday, Joe Carollo attempted to climb the ladder. It suddenly and inexplicably collapsed, sending him to the ground.

It was a difficult time for the Carollos. Twice in the late 1980s Carollo, who served as a Miami city commissioner from 1979 to 1987, lost bids to regain a seat. His business dealings also had proven unsuccessful. In 1991 he lost $25,000 on a proposed restaurant franchise that never opened. After suing to recover his investment from the franchise owner, Sid Shane, he had trouble paying his attorneys' fees. A year later his own restaurant venture, a Japanese/Chinese fast-food joint called Shogun Joe's, flopped. Records show he lost $163,000 in the deal. Hoping to recoup his investment, Carollo, with his wife listed as a coplaintiff, sued his attorney for malpractice, claiming he offered faulty advice. The attorney, Robert Macaulay, countersued, seeking $125,000. (After years of litigation, a jury ruled in Macaulay's favor.)

Carollo's bad luck continued in 1993, when he lost not one but two elections -- to Maurice Ferré in a bid for a county commission seat and to Willie Gort in a city commission race.

Then came the fall, on January 21, 1994. Again the Carollos went to court. In their lawsuit, prepared by Miami personal-injury attorney Gary Garbis and filed exactly ten months after the accident, they cited a laundry list of complaints: The ladder was defective, unreasonably dangerous, improperly assembled, erroneously distributed, and did not meet the required safety standards under federal law. Furthermore they asserted the ladder was sold with inadequate safety warnings and insufficient instructions.

Joe and Maria Carollo were listed as coplaintiffs. Maria was not injured in the accident; her claim, records indicate, stems solely from the discomfort of enduring the company of a permanently injured and impaired husband locked in a perpetually bad mood. The couple demanded a jury trial.

The lawsuit snaked its way through the court system for two and a half years before the settlement was reached in May 1997. Both sides agreed the payout to the Carollos would remain confidential. Carollo acknowledges he and his wife received a lump sum in 1997. “Go ahead, attack me,” he rails. “Write whatever you want. I've answered your questions. You've got it all right there. Everything you need is there in the [court] record.”

The case was dismissed on May 7, 1997. There is no mention in the court file as to whether Joe Carollo recovered from his injuries or regained his ability to enjoy life.

A peek at Joe Carollo's financial disclosures, filed by law each year, provides little insight into the amount of his personal-injury settlement with Davidson Manufacturing and Builders Square. In fact Carollo's net worth over the past five years was at its lowest in 1997, the year of the lump-sum payment.

Even his highest net worth, $98,274.21 in 1999, is surprisingly modest for a man who once claimed an annual earnings potential of $210,396 per year. Court records show Carollo arrived at that figure in 1996 by averaging his wage and salary income over a five-year period.

Records also reveal substantial income from investments and other sources. In 1989, a year when Joe earned $352,282 in salary and wages and Maria garnered just $29,500, their joint tax return reported a combined income of more than $925,000.

Where's it all going? One explanation: His home, valued at $350,000, and other investments are in Maria's name. Court records also reveal that Maria often is a principal investor in Joe's business dealings.

Here's what Joe is worth, as reported to the City of Miami Clerk's Office:

1995 Assets $86,444.94 Liabilities 0 Net Worth $86,444.95

1996 Assets $84,781.37 Liabilities 0 Net Worth $84,781.37

1997 Assets $46,545.88 Liabilities 0 Net Worth $46,545.88

1998 Assets $51,743.35 Liabilities 0 Net Worth $51,743.35

1999 Assets $98,274.21* Liabilities 0 Net Worth $98,274.21

*includes back pay of $37,338.52 from the City of Miami

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