Thursday, August 16, 2018
News Roundup

$5 million compromise ends long legal battle between maimed biker and Tampa City Hall

TAMPA — After Ramiro Companioni Jr.’s motorcycle crashed into a Tampa Water Department truck in 1996, emergency room doctors expected he would surely die.

Somehow he lived, but he is maimed for life. In 2004, a jury decided City Hall should pay Companioni nearly $18 million in damages.

Now, nearly 22 years after the accident and 14 years after the verdict, Companioni, 55, is finally in a position to get $5 million of that money.

The Legislature this year passed a claims bill for that amount, and on Friday Gov. Rick Scott signed it, ending a bitter and long-running legal battle over the biggest personal injury verdict ever against the city of Tampa.

"I feel like I have waken up from a 20-year nightmare," Companioni said in a text message.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa fights injured biker’s claim 12 years after $18 million verdict

"He didn’t win the lottery," said Tallahassee attorney Lance Block, who represented Companioni. "But getting the claim bill behind him and having some trust money to help pay his bills, take care of living expenses and help with his medical care will make a dramatic difference in the quality of his life."

Despite the verdict, Florida’s sovereign immunity law has meant that until now Companioni has seen just $100,000 of the jury’s award. That’s the cap on negligence claims against cities unless the Legislature approves a claims bill for more and the governor signs off.

Legislators have filed claims bills on Companioni’s behalf every year since 2014, but this spring is the first time one has been approved.

Instead, over the years, City Hall has paid more than $176,000 to private attorneys who dug into Companioni’s driving records, broken marriage and other troubles. The verdict should not be paid because, they contended, Companioni was a danger to himself and others. Two years ago, Mayor Bob Buckhorn called the jury verdict "completely off base" and said the city would "fight this as long as we have to fight it."

This year, however, the city and Companioni agreed to a compromise settlement of $5 million, which would be used to establish a settlement preservation trust for Companioni. Legal and lobbying fees would be capped at a total of $1.25 million.

"I think it finally got to the point where we figured, let’s get the thing resolved because it was going to keep coming back and keep coming back and keep coming back," City Attorney Sal Territo said. The matter would need to be dealt with eventually. It helped that the compromise was about a third of the original verdict.

Block said legislators began to look at the bill last year and it "got to the point this year that some of the leaders felt like the city needed to do something about this."

"I think that both sides were encouraged to reach an agreement or the Legislature would take the bill into its own hands," he said.

Companioni, who once said fighting City Hall had left him "abused, demeaned, disrespected (and) falsely accused," said he was "very grateful" to legislators, especially Sen. Bill Galvano, R- Bradenton, Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, "who have been like angels on my shoulders."

•••

The crash happened on Nov. 22, 1996 on Hillsborough Avenue near N 50th Street.

About noon that day, Companioni, then 33, was on his Honda CBR 600 sport motorcycle and going east on Hillsborough to meet friends.

"I wasn’t on drugs. I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t racing. I wasn’t running away from a crime," he said in an interview in 2016.

Ahead, three Tampa Water Department trucks pulled onto Hillsborough, then rumbled across three lanes of traffic at no more than 25 mph. A witness said they blocked the road "like a wagon train."

Companioni and his lawyer said one city truck lumbered into his path too late for him to avoid it. Their accident reconstruction expert put Companioni’s speed at about 20 mph faster than the truck’s. Faster than that, he said, and Companioni, who was wearing a helmet, would have died.

The city countered that Companioni negligently sped into the back of the truck at 65 mph or faster.

The impact split Companioni from the waist down "like breaking a wishbone," the trauma surgeon said, and doctors who first saw him "sort of ... gave him up for dead."

He needed 300 units of blood, spent a month in an induced coma, and used a catheter for two years. He suffered a fractured pelvis, lost his large intestine, spleen, part of his small intestine and two-thirds of his liver. His bottom four vertebrae are fused, as is his right hip. He can’t bend his right leg at the knee or the ankle.

Jurors assigned 90 percent of the fault to the city, 10 percent to Companioni. Their award to him totaled $17.8 million. The city sought a new trial at the 2nd District Court of Appeal and the Florida Supreme Court but lost.

•••

Before the crash, Companioni was a chef and ice carver who had worked for many Tampa restaurants and caterers, as well as a Cancun, Mexico resort that prepared 6,400 meals a day. He was engaged to be married, had competed in food shows and wanted one day to have a restaurant of his own.

Afterward, Companioni’s marriage fell apart amid domestic violence allegations that resulted in him being put on probation. (Companioni says problems caused by his injuries led to the troubles he’s had since the accident.) He has done some part-time work but needs frequent breaks and cannot sit or stand for long.

By managing the money through a trust, both sides expect there will be resources to provide for Companioni’s needs.

"It’s been a difficult 20 years for him to say the least," Block said. "This money will give him an opportunity to look forward."

Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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