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Jury awards $800,000 to family of dead high school baseball player

TAMPA — A Hillsborough jury has awarded more than $800,000 to the family of an Alonso High School baseball player who died during a preseason workout nearly seven years ago.

Matthew M. Miulli, then 17, had a pre-existing heart condition but was cleared to participate in conditioning workouts. He collapsed after running a mile on the high school track and was declared dead at the Town & Country Hospital from congenital aortic valve disease.

Matthew's death raised questions about requirements for school sports and also spurred a Florida High School Athletic Association rule that mandates schools have defibrillators at sporting events.

The defendants in the long-running civil case are his doctor, Erwin Shartz; the doctor's medical group, Healthpoint Medical Group; and the Hillsborough School Board.

The actual jury award was for $2 million. But if the verdict is upheld, parents Jim and Kathy Miulli would receive only about $800,000. That's because the jury reduced the award based on what it saw as his parents' share of the blame.

Neither the school district nor an attorney for Shartz returned a message seeking comment.

Miulli, a junior at Alonso, had transferred from Tampa Catholic High School, in part so he could get more baseball playing time. He had played outfield on the junior varsity squad at Tampa Catholic, but wanted to play catcher.

Bryan Caulfield, an attorney for Miulli's parents, said they went ahead and got their son another physical — even though the school did not require it for preseason workouts.

Shartz cleared Miulli to do the workouts, which included running and weight lifting. But a cardiologist called Shartz and told him Miulli should not get the go-ahead, Caulfield said.

Miulli's parents say they never got the cardiologist's warning. Shartz said he left phone messages, but they say they never got them. He sent a certified letter, too, but when Shartz's medical group received notice that the certified letter had gone undelivered, no one notified Shartz, according to Caulfield.

"Instead, the letter went into a drawer," Caulfield said.

Miulli, meanwhile, had started in on the workouts. Four and a half months later, he collapsed. For someone with a heart problem, Caulfield said, "When you do intense conditioning workouts, you're moving toward your death."

Miulli died in January 2005.

Caulfield said the jury determined the school district was partially on the hook since it did not require the physical before preseason workouts.

Matthew was the only child of Jim and Kathy Miulli, who have spent the last years consumed by his death: a long-running court case, mediation, testimony before the state Legislature and the County Commission.

"It came to a point a year and half ago where we were just tired," Jim Miulli said. Every time something new came up in the case, "it just opened the wound right up."

His wife still gets teary-eyed when she talks about the day they rushed to the high school and saw a coach sitting on their son, trying to perform CPR. They remember their son, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, who still liked spending Friday nights with his dad at the batting cages.

They remember, too, when he was a toddler who would plop a ball in an adult's lap and waddle to the other side of the room and clap, waiting for a pitch.

His father comforts himself with numbers. For instance: The state Legislature in 2006 passed the Gordon-Miulli Act, which funded the purchase of defibrillators at many youth athletic events.

"It passed 119 to 0," he said. And the significance of 119, he said? Jan. 19 is the day Matthew died.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Jury awards $800,000 to family of dead high school baseball player 10/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 26, 2011 11:10pm]
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