Lawsuit blames neighbors in fatal crash of intoxicated driver

DADE CITY — On the night of Sept. 30, 2010, a man and a woman fled from a crime scene down a dark country road, sped through a stop sign and ran into two trees. The couple, both with cocaine and other drugs in their systems, died instantly, the car ramming through the space between the trunks, shattering into pieces and catching fire, a devastating, traumatic scene neighbors said looked like war.

The neighbors couldn't shake the haunting images of that night and those strangers. Even now, years later, they try not to walk there, as it feels as if they are stepping on graves.

But a few weeks ago, the neighbors got stunning news:

The estate of the woman, who was the passenger in the car, filed a lawsuit, claiming those neighbors and Pasco County itself are at fault in her death. The wording of the suit is vague, but the gist of the claims is this:

The stop sign was obscured.

There were no street lights.

And there was no warning to drivers that there were trees on the side of a private road.

• • •

"This is absurd," said Shannon Ray, 44, one of the homeowners being sued. He and his family were inside their home on Sheffey Lane when the crash happened and could feel the vibration of it, like a bomb exploded. Ray, like the others on their road, felt sad for the families of the two people who died: Paul Suprenant, 39, and Sheila Julien, 53, who lived together in Thonotosassa.

But:

"How it's our fault," Ray said, "I have no idea."

According to authorities, Suprenant and Julien began the evening at a Blockbuster video store at 7242 Gall Blvd. in Zephyrhills, with Julien inside and Suprenant waiting in his 1995 Pontiac Bonneville sedan. Both had criminal histories involving drugs, with Suprenant serving two prison stints for cocaine and heroin possession, grand theft and fleeing law enforcement. On this night, Suprenant had no valid driver's license.

Julien, according to a Zephyrhills Police report, wore a yellow tank top, a green skirt, brown shoes and looked thin and disheveled. When she left the store, the alarm system sounded and she bolted into the car, a police report states. An off-duty Blockbuster clerk called 911 and hopped in his car to chase them. Suprenant headed north on U.S. 301 into Dade City "at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour," the clerk told the Florida Highway Patrol. The old black Bonneville veered east on Centennial Road, a pockmarked street with no lights, and slipped away into the night. The clerk, unfamiliar with the area, didn't follow.

Centennial Road is a public road in a rural area, with pastures of cows and horses. It has two lanes, a speed limit of 30 mph and ends at the intersection with Newsome Road. There is a stop sign at that intersection.

If you cross Newsome and continue to head east, Centennial becomes a one-lane private road called Sheffey Lane. Each homeowner owns the piece of the road in front of his or her home, and everyone pitches in for maintenance bills. It dead-ends and does not connect with other roads. Those who drive it are nearly always residents, friends of residents or people with a purpose to be there.

There is no sign warning drivers that the road narrows.

Suprenant "failed to slow or stop" at the stop sign, FHP said, and continued forward as though the road was there, plowing onto the dirt shoulder of Sheffey Lane and hitting the two trees. He was ejected, nearly all his bones broken, his heart severed, spinal cord severed, his body on fire, his left arm with a tattoo of "bad luck" found by a fence. It is unknown if Julien, found inside the vehicle, wore her seat belt because of what the fire did to the car and her body, FHP said. But, according to the medical examiner's office, Suprenant and Julien died from their injuries before the fire began.

Both had cocaine in their systems, their autopsies state. Suprenant also had methadone and oxycodone. Julien had methamphetamine and opiates.

Several Iron Man 2 DVDs were found melted in the wreckage.

Suprenant was at fault, FHP said, and if he survived, he would have been charged with seven offenses, including DUI and vehicular homicide in the death of Julien.

"There were no apparent visual roadway obstructions or environmental factors that would have contributed to this crash," the FHP report states.

• • •

Janet Hickerson is the mother of Julien.

"She was my daughter and I loved her very much," she said.

Even though Hickerson, who lives in Ohio, is named as the representative of the estate, she said she did not have anything to do with the lawsuit, which names Pasco County and 21 residents along Sheffey Lane and at the intersection as defendants. The suit says the county "negligently, carelessly and recklessly maintained, managed and controlled all traffic signs and lighting" in the area. Those living at the intersection were accused of not maintaining their "foliage." Those living on Sheffey Lane were vaguely accused of failing to maintain the road in a safe manner and not warning drivers of "dangerous conditions."

Hickerson said she heard the street was treacherous.

"There were no signs on that road," she said.

She said Julien's daughter, Ashley Julien, who lives in Florida, was the one who dealt with the lawsuit.

Ashley Julien was not able to be interviewed because she has been incarcerated in the Polk County jail since Dec. 5 on charges of failing to appear in court, violating her drug probation and resisting an officer. The Polk County Sheriff's Office does not allow jailhouse interviews.

The attorney who filed the lawsuit, Tara B. Conner, of Winter Haven, did not return phone calls or email messages from the Tampa Bay Times seeking comment.

Pasco County will soon file its response.

"The county intends to address the allegations in the complaint in the courtroom and before a jury," said Anthony Salzano, senior assistant county attorney.

A motion to dismiss has already been filed by one attorney representing a Sheffey Lane couple. It states the lawsuit was so "vague or ambiguous" that it was difficult to even know what the defendants were accused of specifically doing that failed to save the victims' lives.

Darryl C. Wilson, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, said owners of private roads have a duty to maintain the road, as municipalities do, but the burden of proof is on the plaintiff.

"They definitely have a difficult case as plaintiffs to show that it was the condition of the road that was the cause of their injuries," Wilson said. "It seems more like it was their own condition that caused the injuries."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

Lawsuit blames neighbors in fatal crash of intoxicated driver 02/09/13 [Last modified: Saturday, February 9, 2013 12:55pm]

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