NEW PORT RICHEY — Attorney Debra Tuomey stood in a courtroom Monday and spoke of her brother's injury, which he suffered after driving his car into a Chevrolet Tahoe on Christmas afternoon in 2007, killing three people and severely injuring a fourth.
He got a scar.
On his left elbow.
"That scar is permanent," said Tuomey, who's representing her brother, David Belniak, in a civil case being heard in Pasco County.
Belniak, 38, pleaded guilty last year to three counts of DUI manslaughter and is serving 12 years in prison. The victims' families sued Belniak, seeking damages.
Tuomey, 37, filed a countersuit, claiming her brother didn't actually cause the crash. She blames the other driver, Ray McWilliams, who lost his wife, Linda McWilliams, 66, stepdaughter Denise Bassi, 50, and son-in-law Gerard Bassi, 51, in the crash. Relatives say McWilliams never recovered and died last year at 68, making Belniak the only remaining survivor of the crash.
Tuomey says her brother was pressured to plead guilty because, at trial, he could have faced life in prison.
Belniak had minor injuries and was released from a hospital the day after the crash. Tuomey's suit asks for him to be paid for his pain, suffering, mental anguish and medical bills.
"I would request Mr. Belniak be allowed to publish that scar to the jury," Tuomey asked Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Lowell Bray.
Bray allowed it.
Belniak took off his suit jacket, rolled up a sleeve, shuffled over to the jurors in his leg shackles, and held up his wound. It was too faint to be seen from the public court benches.
The crash happened on U.S. 19 at Little Road in Hudson. The McWilliams family was headed to a relative's house in Brooksville for Christmas dinner. Eyewitnesses testified that their Chevy was sitting at a red light before the crash.
Crash reconstruction experts hired by both sides of the case testified last week that the Tahoe was at a standstill when it was hit. John Murdoch, an expert for the victims' estates, said Belniak was going 86 mph when he plowed into the Tahoe without braking. Frank Fore, an expert for Belniak, said Belniak's Nissan Titan was going 53 mph.
Authorities said Belniak had Xanax, alcohol and cocaine metabolites in his system at the time of the crash. A girl he was with the night with before the accident said in a deposition that she and Belniak spent Christmas Eve drinking and snorting cocaine.
Belniak claims McWilliams abruptly swerved from the left-turn lane into the left through lane, giving him no chance to miss hitting the Tahoe.
Tuomey also recently filed a lawsuit against the Florida Highway Patrol. She claims the agency's investigation of the case was a "government-sanctioned assassination against one individual."
Witnesses testified last week that Belniak was a driving terror for miles before the fatal crash, driving on curbs, sidewalks and into oncoming traffic. In the lawsuit, Tuomey discounts eyewitness accounts that said the Tahoe was stopped at the red light because "recorded statements were not taken at the scene, but were taken after the witnesses were contaminated and after being exposed to the massive negative media coverage against Belniak."
Belniak, of Spring Hill, is the son of Alfred and Marlene Belniak, who owned a construction company in Hernando County. Records stated Belniak was an officer in his parents' company and that the family owned more than two dozen properties. The families of the McWilliams and Bassi estates have sued Belniak in Hernando, alleging that in the weeks following the crash, he signed over four properties to his parents. That case is awaiting the verdict of this Pasco lawsuit.
The Pasco civil trial began June 4. Lawyers for the McWilliams and Bassi estates put on their cases first, then the lawyers representing Belniak in the family's lawsuit. Tuomey's case, where Belniak is the plaintiff and the McWilliams estate is the defendant, began and ended Monday.
Closing arguments are expected Tuesday.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.