In the late evening hours of September 25, 2016, Charlie Ruiz, 39, was driving home from his night-shift job at Delta Airlines on US 441 Southbound near Sample Road in Coral Springs, Florida. Gregory Holt, the defendant, celebrating his 18th birthday that same night, was exiting US 441 southbound at Sample Road at a high rate of speed when he lost control of his vehicle and, instead of making a right turn, he jumped the grassy median and went airborne, landing on Ruiz’s vehicle and coming to rest upside down several yards from the crash site. The impact was so severe that Ruiz had to be extricated from his vehicle by fire rescue. He was rushed to Broward Health Medical Center where he was pronounced dead. Holt fled the scene and was later apprehended by the Coral Springs Police Department.
Prior to the filing of the lawsuit against Holt, the Plaintiff reached a confidential settlement with other prospective Defendants. Ruiz’s ex-wife, Rosiris Bell, acting as the personal representative of Ruiz’s estate and the mother of Ruiz’s then-13-year-old daughter, Angelica Ruiz, sued Holt. The lawsuit claimed that Holt was negligent in the operation of his vehicle.
Suit was filed in the Broward Civil Circuit Court in 2018. Three years of litigation, owed in part to the slow pace of the justice system and in part to the COVID-19 pandemic court closures, finally came to a head in a one-day trial in Broward County before Judge Michele Towbin-Singer. Though Holt fled the scene of the accident and was possibly intoxicated at the time of the crash, this information was not presented to the jury. The defense admitted liability and causation. At trial Plaintiff sought recovery for Angelica’s past and future mental pain and suffering as a result of her father’s death.
Because of the difficulty getting the case to trial, Coral Gables trial lawyers, Jose Raposo Jr., and John C. Lukacs Jr., of Raposo & Lukacs, found themselves trying to overcome a major hurdle. Angelica was now 18 years old and, according to defense counsel Patrick Spellacy of Kirwan Spellacy & Danner in Fort Lauderdale, she had moved on with her life, was excelling in school and was, overall, “doing better”. Defense counsel noted that since the incident Angelica went on to become class president, get good grades, travel with her family and had a stepfather who had filled the role of a father figure in her life. Defense counsel also tried to impeach Bell on the stand noting that Bell said in a pretrial deposition that Angelica was improving.
Angelica, only 13 at the time of the crash, was his only survivor. She took the stand and told the jury how she stopped eating and sleeping in the immediate aftermath of her father’s death. She also became socially withdrawn and started cutting herself. Angelica’s mother, Rosiris Bell, testified that when she asked Angelica why she cut herself she said because she “wanted to join Papi in heaven”. Angelica started seeing a psychologist on a regular basis. Bell further testified that although it had been five years, her daughter was still struggling with Ruiz’s death. She explained how Angelica bakes Charlie’s favorite cake and watches their favorite movies every year on his birthday and how she organizes a memorial each year on the anniversary of his death to honor him. Angelica told the jury through sobs how her father was her best friend, he was a “big kid” who everyone couldn’t help but love and that she still missed him every day. She said she could still see the mangled car that her dad had to be forcefully freed from and the most painful part was knowing her dad died on the side of the road, in pain and alone.
In closing arguments, Lukacs told the jury that pain and suffering is different for everyone. He asked the jury if Angelica looked like someone who had moved on and who was no longer suffering. He reminded the jury that Angelica and Charlie would have had 40 more years together had his life not been cut short so violently and tragically. Plaintiff’s counsel asked the jury to award $10 million in past damages and $25 million in future damages. The defense argued that the plaintiff’s damages request was excessive and contended that $35 million dollars was “a lot of money”. Defense counsel suggested that $1 million would be a just amount because Angelica’s pain had, and would, lessen over time.
After 30 minutes of deliberation, the jury awarded plaintiff $40 million– $20 million for past pain and suffering and $20 million for future pain and suffering. $5 million more than Plaintiff had asked for. “Throughout the trial, the defense lawyers told the jury that our client had moved on and that her pain and suffering had diminished.” Raposo said, “We were able to demonstrate to the jury the different aspects of our client’s grieving process and explain how her pain and suffering had evolved over the years. We emphasized to the jury that because her father’s death was an untimely and wrongful death, that it brought intense mental pain and suffering that will never diminish.”
Lukacs said the jury verdict would bring closure to Angelica and demonstrated that the Broward County community valued her father’s contributions to society. “The takeaway is don’t be afraid to ask for a lot of money when you think that it’s the right thing to do, even in a case where you only have one survivor and no punitive damages. You run the risk that you don’t get a good jury and it could have the opposite effect, but that’s a risk we were willing to take.”
The Coral Gables litigators are now exploring potential bad faith claims that could be possible now that the jury has returned the $40 million dollar verdict and confidential settlements were reached with separate parties.