A Miami-Dade jury has returned one of the largest verdicts ever in an automobile accident case, awarding $95 million in damages plus attorneys’ fees to a South Florida family whose daughter was killed and whose son was catastrophically injured by a drunken driver in 2015.
The jury found that one of the defendants, Georgetown Partnership, owner of The Corner, a bar in Miami, was negligent in serving alcohol to the inebriated driver. The business was ordered to pay almost $59 million for the medical care of the son and $37 million in damages to the parents, Noel Criales and Elisa Diaz.
Insurers for the bistro were not named in the suit. The driver of the car, 22-year-old Franklin Chavez, in 2017 was sentenced to seven years in prison after he was found guilty of driving under the influence and causing the accident. After hours of partying, Chavez drove more than 70 mph on the wrong side of Interstate 95, with his lights off, before slamming head-on into the Criales’ vehicle, according to news reports at the time.
The family was taking the daughter to the airport, on her way to medical school.
The civil verdict against the drinking establishment owner ranks third only to the famous, $1 billion Florida verdict against two trucking companies in 2021, and a $120 million verdict in another truck accident case, according to news reports and TopVerdict.com.
The jury in the $1 billion case found that the driver for one company was on his cell phone, was over the allowed number of driving hours, and did not have a commercial license. After the accident caused a pileup, another truck driver failed to slow down and slammed into the cars, killing an 18-year-old. The jury granted $100 million to the parents, along with $900 million in punitive damages.
In the Criales’ wrongful death and personal injury suit, the jury did not award punitive damages, which could have been capped under Florida law. Even without caps on damages, it’s unlikely that the family will collect the full $96 million or if the verdict will hold up on appeal. Florida’s “dram shop” statute, often called restrictive for plaintiffs, allows damages, but only when an establishment willfully or unlawfully sells booze to a minor or to someone who is “habitually addicted” to alcohol.
A Florida appeals court earlier this year reversed a $29 million dram shop verdict against a bar in Tallahassee. And it’s possible the judge in the Criales suit could reduce the judgment amount, as happened with the $120 million verdict in the truck crash suit.
It’s unclear what assets the Miami bar’s parent corporation, Georgetown Partnership, may hold that could be used to pay the judgment. The firm is listed as a limited liability corporation, meaning its principals can’t personally be held liable for most of the damages.
And a nightclub or restaurant’s liquor liability insurance policy is usually limited to no more than $2 million, attorneys have said. A move by plaintiffs to seek more than what the policy limits provide would depend on many factors, explained Fort Lauderdale attorney David Henry, chair of third-party litigation at the Kelley Kronenberg firm.
Unlike some states, such as Louisiana, a defendant’s insurance company is not usually part of a direct claim for damages in an auto or negligence case. But insurers in Florida are often involved in the litigation and may have a duty to defend the insured bistro business. One way for the family to seek payment from the insurer in this case would be to pursue a bad-faith claim against the carrier. Bad-faith claims can be justified in some cases if the insurer did not offer to settle when the facts indicated, or did not pay the policy limits if warranted, Henry said.
The principals of Georgetown Partnership could not be reached for comment. The lawyers for the Criales family also could not be reached by the Insurance Journal. But attorney Aaron Davis told Law.com, a legal news website, that putting the father on the witness stand made an impression on jurors.
Davis, in his closing arguments, also noted that the defendant owner of the bar did not bother to show up in court for the trial.
The family reached confidential settlements with other defendants in the case, according to the news site. The plaintiffs had also named Chavez, the driver, and Crossfit Downtown Miami, a gym where Chavez worked, which held the fateful Christmas party in 2015.
Correction: A previous version of this article provided an incorrect name for the lawyer for the bistro.
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