TAMPA — A driver who pulled off Interstate 75 to avoid a plume of black smoke from the vehicle in front of him, but then plummeted down an embankment, was not responsible for his own death, a jury decided Thursday.
Mary Bottini's eyes filled with tears after the ruling, which ordered GEICO to pay more than $30 million, her attorney said.
Gerard Bottini, then 46, was on his way home from a March 2007 trade show in Miami when a vehicle in front of him on I-75 in Hillsborough County emitted a cloud of dark smoke, dropping his visibility to zero, said Steve Yerrid, an attorney for his estate.
He was in the left lane with traffic on his right and a semitrailer truck behind him when he decided to pull off on the left shoulder, Yerrid said.
"What he couldn't have known is there was a 5-foot ditch," Yerrid said. Bottini's Ford pickup plunged down the embankment, and the crash crushed the driver's side roof down to 3 inches from the seat.
Bottini died and his two co-workers were injured.
GEICO denied the claim. The company's attorneys argued Bottini wasn't wearing a seat belt and caused the accident by over-steering in a panic, Yerrid said.
"Unfortunately in some cases, wearing a seat belt doesn't matter," he said.
Yerrid argued that Bottini couldn't see, and the best course of action was to pull off the side of the road instead of risking striking a disabled vehicle.
Experts — including GEICO's — backed up that assertion, he said.
A jury of four men and two women awarded more than $14 million to Bottini's wife, Mary; more than $5 million to each of his three minor children; and $1.8 million in economic damages, according to court documents.
Bottini owned a family commercial printing business, Data Print Inc. in Tampa, Yerrid said.
The father was a Boy Scout leader and was supposed to participate in a Pinewood Derby the week he died, Yerrid said.
"It has been a long road to justice, and I am so very grateful the jury cleared Gerard's name ... and especially recognized the magnitude of what we lost," Mary Bottini said in a statement. "Now we will go forward with forgiveness and closure as best we can."