TAMPA — Three years after 65-year-old Miguel Mercado died on his public works job, a civil jury has awarded his family more than $5 million.
But any money the family might see is a long way off. Their immediate victory was a moral one: The jury found that the driver who ran into Mercado in 2008 was impaired by drugs. The family had waited all this time to hear that.
Mercado, a father of four, was close to retirement from his city of Tampa job when the accident happened on an October morning. Mercado and co-worker Joseph Campbell, 36, were standing by their city truck, its lights flashing yellow in the center lane, as they stretched a cable across Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at 53rd Street, to count cars.
A pickup swerved into them, pinning Mercado between both trucks. He died instantly. Campbell was thrown by the impact and suffered a broken leg, back injuries and a severed finger.
The pickup driver, 25-year-old Aaron Swanson, was not injured. At the time, police said they suspected he was under the influence of drugs and charges were pending. But those charges never came. He received a ticket for failure to drive in a single lane.
Since then, he's racked up three more Hillsborough County traffic tickets: speeding, running a stop sign and careless driving, with damages totalling $15,000, according to traffic court records.
He's still licensed to drive.
Last week, a civil jury heard that Swanson, besides not sleeping the night before, had Xanax, marijuana and methadone in his system. He has no criminal record in Florida.
Lawyers for the Mercado family said Swanson was on his way to a methadone clinic when the accident happened.
The State Attorney's Office said Monday it had been unable to prosecute Swanson. Assistant State Attorney Barbara Coleman said two blood samples were analyzed separately, but the drugs in Swanson's body were at levels insufficient for criminal charges.
Then, Friday, the civil jury found that Swanson was impaired and that the accident was entirely his fault. It awarded Mercado's family $4,187,433 in compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages.
Swanson said he is destitute, but he has a policy from Geico that covers damages up to $10,000.
Weldon Brennan, an attorney for the family, said the Mercados had initially intended to settle for the $10,000, but Geico had refused to provide insurance documents sought by the plaintiff, causing the case to go to trial. He said he will pursue Geico for the full award.
Swanson's attorney, Dorothy Venable DiFiore, declined to comment.
According to Brennan, the only money Mercado's family has received thus far are widow's benefits through city of Tampa workers' compensation. Gloria Garcia Mercado, Miguel's wife for four decades, declined to comment through her attorneys Monday.
"There are a lot more battles to fight," Brennan said. "Miguel Mercado's widow can celebrate only one thing: The jury said, 'You were right. He was on drugs. He killed your husband.'"
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383.