TAMPA — A court case that grew out of a catastrophic crash 14 years ago — and that ultimately could be the biggest civil jury award ever against the city of Tampa — will go on even longer, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Justices sent the case back to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, where the city will make more arguments for a new trial.
The case dates to Nov. 26, 1996, the day that Ramiro G. Companioni Jr.'s motorcycle slammed into a city water department truck on Hillsborough Avenue near 50th Street.
He argued the truck caused the crash by veering across traffic and sideswiping him.
Companioni, once a successful chef, learned to walk again after nearly having his legs cut off in the crash. His right knee was fused and he could not bend at the waist. He later sold hot dogs outside Tampa Bay Buccaneers games and at car dealerships.
He since has taken up construction work where he can get it, Companioni said. But multiple surgeries have severely limited his options, and he said he can't drive, use a wheelchair, sit in typical chairs or walk normally.
"It gets hard to hold down a job when you don't know where you're going to be next week or how long its going to take to recover," he said.
In its appeal, the city had argued it deserved another trial because of misconduct by Companioni's attorney. The city objected to his conduct at the time, but didn't seek a mistrial.
City attorneys requested a mistrial only after the $18 million judgment was returned against the city. But the trial judge told them they should have asked for a mistrial before the verdict.
An appellate court ruled the trial judge used the wrong standard, and ordered a new trial.
But state Supreme Court justices agreed in the ruling Thursday with the trial judge — that the city should have asked earlier.
Tampa City Attorney Chip Fletcher said he was disappointed by the ruling, but that the city would continue appeals.
The city will still argue that misconduct by the plaintiff's attorney denied the city a fair trial. And the city will also argue that the judgment was excessive.
Companioni said he's not surprised. "They are going to say that $18 million is too heavy a burden on taxpayers, but what about the attorney fees they keep accumulating?" Companioni asked.