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Parents testify in wrongful death suit against McDonald's franchisee

DADE CITY — The best moments of Anthony Makowski's life were projected onto a video screen Monday inside Courtroom B of the Pasco County Courthouse.

His parents, choking on their grief, described the family photos. Anthony, small and blond, wearing a cone-shaped birthday hat. Anthony fishing with his dad. Anthony singing the national anthem at a high school baseball game. Anthony in cap and gown.

He was 21 when he died on April 24, 2005, after an early-morning brawl at a McDonald's in Land O'Lakes. Authorities say he and another man began arguing in the drive-through lane, and the dispute erupted into a fist fight in the parking lot.

Makowski, authorities said, charged at 25-year-old Martin Robles-Taylor, body slammed and battered him until Robles-Taylor got him into a choke hold that killed him. Both men and their friends had been drinking. Investigators determined Robles-Taylor was acting in self defense and did not charge him with a crime.

Wayne and Cathy Makowski, Anthony's parents, filed a wrongful death suit against Brickman Management Co., the McDonald's franchisee, and B & B Cash Grocery Stores, the owner of the U.S. 41 shopping center that is home to the restaurant. The lawsuit alleges the businesses failed to provide adequate security to keep their patrons safe — particularly because the 24-hour drive-through catered to night owls.

The trial has pitted crime experts against each other, arguing matters of business and individual responsibility and theories of reasonable care in crime prevention.

An expert for the plaintiffs said last week that incidents like parking lot fights have a probability of escalating into something worse, and therefore the restaurant should have had something in place, such as a security guard, to deter them.

An expert for the defense countered Monday that alcohol-fueled fights between strangers that result in a death are rare, thus impossible to foresee and prepare for.

Gregg McCrary, a former FBI agent, said the shopping center was not an area known for violent crime — only for late-night nuisances — and that restaurant employees responded appropriately when the fight broke out.

"The only people that called for an ambulance was McDonald's," McCrary said.

Responsibility for the death, he said, lies with the men who decided to fight.

"They're the ones who made the choice," he said. "They made lots of choices along the way to either engage or disengage."

'Like I'm dead inside'

But the focus shifted Monday from such legal arguments to the life that was lost and the damage left in the wake.

Cathy and Wayne Makowski, who tried for many years before finally having a child, said they're done celebrating holidays now. They escape somewhere and try to distract themselves while other people get together with family.

Wayne Makowski, who coached his son in youth sports and had high hopes for his 91-mph fastball, said he still washes Anthony's clothes and returns them to his closet, thinking he might come home.

The Makowskis' real estate business, where young Anthony used to wear a badge that said "Boss," folded after his death.

"I was at the top of my career, and when this happened it was like the rug got pulled from under me," Cathy Makowski said, crying. "It's like I'm dead inside."

When Anthony died, Cathy Makowski said she bought side-by-side grave sites. One for her son, one for herself:

"I did not think I would survive."

The Makowskis are seeking more than $15,000 in damages, and the defense has argued the couple is going after the businesses with the deep pockets instead of the other man involved in the fight.

But Cathy Makowski told jurors Monday that this case isn't about the money.

"We have been wronged," she said. "If we should prevail, this money cannot be spent on us. I would have to do something to honor my son's memory."

She said that might involve setting up an organization or foundation to help other families, although she didn't provide specifics.

"That is the only way I can . . . bring some honor to his memory, to help others, to reach out to people that are abandoned by the system," she said.

Testimony will continue today, and the case is expected to go to jurors later this week.

Parents testify in wrongful death suit against McDonald's franchisee 06/22/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 2:32pm]
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