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Judge orders woman to take $15,000, eight years after fender bender

NEW PORT RICHEY — After eight years of legal tussling between Pasco attorneys and a woman hit by a county bus going 5 mph, a judge last week ordered that a $15,000 settlement will extinguish the case once and for all.

Circuit Judge Lowell Bray ruled that Judith Allen, 67, must take the money. The case had dragged on mainly because Allen claimed she only accepted the settlement under duress — she said she was intimidated and at one point physically pushed by her own lawyers.

In a letter to the board of county commissioners, the county administrator and a state senator on April 23 of last year, Allen described herself as a "lone 66-year-old woman with a serious heart arrhythmia." She wears glasses and floral dresses, and is calm and serious when she speaks. She said the accident fractured her pelvis and she experiences numbness in her hands and shins.

Allen, who ended up representing herself, vented her frustration after the hearing.

"I didn't have a good attorney. I had an attorney who threw me under the bus," she said. "And I was hit by a bus."

• • •

The years-long saga began on July 20, 2005. According to a crash report, Allen was driving north on Leo Kidd Avenue toward U.S. 19, with a county bus behind her. She stopped for traffic and the bus rear-ended her.

Damage to the bus amounted to $9.93, according to the case file, and 15 minutes of labor to swap out a bike rack. Allen's car suffered minor damage, and she declined treatment on scene. The report said she was not injured.

Allen testified she later drove herself to an ER and was released with a prescription. Five days later she saw another doctor for some therapy sessions. Seven months later, she was referred to a spine center by her first attorney, Dan Rock. She had an initial exam in March of 2006, an MRI three months later and a follow-up exam in October.

Allen had several more accidents, according to the case file, including one in September of 2007 that totaled her vehicle. She served Pasco County with the lawsuit in the bus crash that same month, which the county moved to dismiss. For two years it wormed through the system and in December of 2009, Allen fired Rock.

Rock responded by filing a claim against future settlement money, which the court approved in March of 2010.

The county later offered Allen a settlement of $12,500 through her new lawyer, Robert Shuttera. When Allen didn't respond the case was set for trial.

But on April 1, 2012, Pasco County attorney Anthony Salzano got a call that Allen would accept $15,000 in lieu of trial. She did not object, Salzano said, when the settlement was announced in open court.

"I got busy with other cases and I got distracted," Salzano said. "I sent a release to agree on the money and dismiss the claim, and she never signed it."

Salzano said he realized Allen refused to sign when Geico insurance — which was a codefendant in the case — filed a motion for Allen to accept its own settlement. Allen missed that hearing, alleging she didn't receive the letters in time.

Salzano filed the same motion to get the settlement accepted.

Then Allen claimed her lawyer pushed her.

• • •

In a cramped and tense hearing Tuesday in Bray's chambers, Allen cross-examined her former lawyers.

She accused attorney Craig A. LeValley of pushing her into a chair.

"Ma'am," he said, "I've never pushed a client."

She reminded him of the circumstances that day.

"Ma'am," Bray asked Allen, "is that a question?"

She asked Shuttera about her own motives.

"I don't know your personal motivations," he said.

Bray reminded her numerous times not to argue with the witnesses.

They all denied her claims of verbal and physical attacks.

Shuttera, in addition to Rock and one other lawyer, have claims against the settlement money.

"I won't see a cent of it," Allen said.

Allen said she plans to investigate the lawyers involved and will take it up with the Florida Bar Association.

"Nothing happened that I didn't expect," she said.

Contact Jon Silman at (727) 869-6229, Jsilman@tampabay.com or @Jonsilman1 on Twitter.

Judge orders woman to take $15,000, eight years after fender bender 08/23/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 23, 2013 7:14pm]
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