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Tales from the vault: A car crash, a shooting, and a baby

As a trial lawyer, many of our cases are relatively straightforward: a defendant’s negligence has injured our client and we work to make them as whole as possible with a settlement or jury verdict. The only real issue in those cases is the extent of our client’s damages. However, occasionally there are certain cases that involve both criminal acts and civil liability, consequently becoming very complex where a favorable outcome for our client is by no means guaranteed. This is a tale of just such a case.[1]

It was a terrible case, involving a car wreck and a catastrophic shooting. While representing our client in an automobile negligence case she was, unbeknownst to us, simultaneously involved in a bitter child custody dispute with the father of her 14 month old daughter. While picking up her daughter on a Saturday night from her boyfriend’s mother’s house, an argument ensued. As our client was attempting to leave with her daughter in the front seat of her car, the boyfriend crashed his truck into her car, making it impossible for her to open the door and exit her vehicle. The boyfriend then walked over the hood of his truck after removing a semi-automatic rifle from the vehicle. He placed his weapon right next to our client’s left cheek, threatening her not to leave. He did not believe the gun was loaded, and pulled the trigger.

Tragically, the rifle was loaded.

The bullet traveled from our client’s left cheek and exited from under her right eye. She was instantly and permanently blinded in both eyes. Their daughter, sitting in a baby seat only a few feet away, was thankfully uninjured.

We reached a quick settlement for the automobile insurance policy limits maintained on the boyfriend’s truck. A lawsuit was filed against the boyfriend and his mother, the owner of the premises. The case eventually settled for a confidential amount, including amounts for the daughter and an older son. Since that time, our valiant client has made great efforts to lead a full life despite losing her sight.

Beyond the heartbreaking facts, what made the case so challenging was the confluence of civil and criminal law. The insurance company tried to deny any liability whatsoever, based on alleged intentional and criminal acts exclusions in its policies. On its face, this was an incredibly difficult case, as the tragic results seemed to support the insurance company’s position.

However, we were able to show that the defendant did not intend to injure our client, and thus his actions were not excluded under the insurance policy, per controlling Florida Supreme Court case law that we presented to the trial judge.

Indeed, we showed that it was the defendant who called 911 after the shooting; it was the defendant who wrapped our client’s shattered face in a towel; and it was the defendant who was sobbing hysterically while holding our client when EMS arrived at the scene. It is undisputed that our client was rendered completely incapacitated and helpless by the gunshot wound. Thus, if the defendant truly intended to kill her, he could have easily done so as she lay at his feet. He could have fired another shot, run her over, strangled her, beat her to death or killed her in any number of ways. He did not. Instead, he summoned emergency medical assistance and cradled her in his arms while uncontrollably crying.

In the end, justice was served for all. We reached settlements that will provide a significant degree of lifetime security for our client and her children. We fully cooperated with the state attorney’s office who reached a plea deal with the defendant, who pled to two aggravated assaults and two attempted manslaughters. Hence, he pled to charges that did not require premeditation or intent to kill, but will still serve a significant term in state prison.

As a postscript, both the settlements and the defendant’s criminal judgment were approved simultaneously in the same hearing by the trial judge. And, as the baby’s father, the defendant had to sign off on the settlement as it provides for his daughter.

After receiving approval from his criminal defense attorney to speak with him, he asked me if his daughter would be taken care of by the settlement. I told him she would. He smiled at me, signed the settlement agreement, and then was taken off to state prison. It was a poignant end to a tragic, senseless mistake.

[1] To protect my client’s privacy, I will not reveal her name and omit other identifying information.