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$1 million settlement reached for punitive damages in Belniak case

HUDSON — She hates coming here, the place that made her an orphan, this gray industrial intersection on a soulless highway, but she felt she needed to. She walked with purpose, sunglasses, sharp dress, flowers clutched, head forward, brisk, heels sinking into the littered grass.

It was hot Wednesday. Melanie Bassi had just come from court, where the man who killed her parents and grandmother agreed to pay another million in punitive damages to her family. The previous night, Tuesday, a jury awarded $14 million to Bassi, her two sisters and other relatives.

Bassi doesn't think she'll get that money. She wants her family back.

"I love you," she thought as she placed bouquets of flowers at memorials for Linda McWilliams, 66, Denise Bassi, 50 and Gerard Bassi, 51.

Her dad died first, here, inside a mangled Chevrolet Tahoe on U.S. 19 on Christmas day in 2007. Her mother and grandmother died at the hospital.

David Belniak, 38, killed them.

Authorities said he had alcohol, Xanax and remnants of cocaine in his system when his Nissan Titan pickup plowed into their Tahoe without braking. One expert estimated his speed at 86 mph. "Ghastly," one witness described the scene.

Belniak pleaded guilty in August to three counts of DUI manslaughter and is serving 12 years in prison. The family wanted him to serve more time, but they couldn't stand the chance, slight as it might have been, that at trial he could walk away free. There is a stipulation in Belniak's deal that he can never again have a driver's license and he can never petition to have his license reinstated.

Even though the family agreed to the deal, they don't like it.

"He is going to be a young man when he gets out. And they are all dead," said Georgette DeFranco, who lost her mother, sister and brother-in-law. "It's not fair."

After he is released, Belniak will serve 10 years probation. If he violates his probation, he could go back to prison.

The family of the victims sued Belniak in civil court seeking damages. In a stunning move that hurt and infuriated the victims' family, Belniak's sister, attorney Debra Tuomey, filed a countersuit, claiming the crash was the fault of Ray McWilliams — the driver of the Tahoe, whose wife died in the crash. She argued the victims' estates should pay Belniak for his pain and suffering. Belniak suffered minor injuries in the crash. A witness testified that Belniak seemed more upset about the damage to his truck than to the people dying in his midst.

Ray McWilliams survived, though he died last year at 68.

The suits were combined into this trial, which began June 4. Counter to what all witnesses testified to seeing, Belniak told jurors McWilliams abruptly veered out in front of him, making the crash unavoidable.

"I believe my brother," said Tuomey, who has also filed a lawsuit against the Florida Highway Patrol, alleging their investigation was flawed. "I believe his statements to the fullest."

The jury decided McWilliams was not at fault in the crash. In addition to the compensatory money awarded, jurors also said Belniak owed the estates punitive damages for his grossly negligent behavior.

In her opening statement Wednesday, attorney Maureen Deskins told jurors things that weren't admissible during the other portion of the trial. She spoke of Belniak's prior criminal background: His eight speeding tickets and three citations for not observing traffic signs. His two DUI charges. His prior, 17-month prison term after officers found a gallon of the intoxicant GHB in his Ford Mustang. His petition for early release from drug offender probation, which was granted on Nov. 27, 2007, just one month before the fatal crash.

Deskins told jurors that Belniak, whose family owned a construction company and property in Hernando County, foresaw a civil suit and sold his assets to his parents within three weeks of the crash. She said Belniak made about $100,000 annually from his job with his parents' construction company and from collecting rent at his two apartment buildings.

Because the court ordered he was not allowed to drive, Belniak said he quit his job and earned nothing. But Deskins had his credit card statements, showing he racked up thousands of dollars worth of bills at Hooters, Chili's, the gym, department stores, and paid it off each month. She said four weeks after the crash, he spent $2,474 to buy a puppy.

"It is our position in this case that Mr. Belniak purposely divested himself of his assets so when we came to this portion of the case he could say, 'I have empty pockets. I have nothing,' " Deskins told jurors.

She said Belniak also spent hundreds a month on gas, even though he wasn't supposed to be driving.

A settlement was reached after opening statements.

Now, attorneys for the McWilliams and Bassi estates will work on a case filed in Hernando regarding the properties Belniak sold to his parents. Deskins said she doesn't believe Belniak will voluntarily pay any of the damages awarded.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Deskins said.

After the trial was over, Belniak stood with his attorneys and sister and laughed.

"They don't have any feelings," DeFranco said.

At the crash site, Melanie Bassi pressed her fingers to her lips and then to the memorials.

It is still hard sometimes for her to believe that this is real, this is her life, her parents are gone.

"It's a constant struggle," she said.

She separated from the group and walked to the road. She clasped her hands and bent her head and prayed as the people driving past watched.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

$1 million settlement reached for punitive damages in Belniak case 06/13/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 10:22pm]

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