ST. PETERSBURG — The clown and the city agree on this: A police officer rushing to a scene sped through a red light and smashed into his car.
The city deemed the accident preventable and suspended the officer for two days.
The clown sued. He wanted $100,000 in damages, saying the injuries kept him from his livelihood, twisting and tying balloons into colorful creatures for children.
The city offered a $20,000 settlement. The clown refused.
A jury awarded him $5,000 last summer, far less than the $100,000 in medical expenses he claimed.
On Wednesday, it got worse for Eugene Weiner, 61, a.k.a. Balloon-a-Tic.
A Pinellas County circuit court judge decided the clown should have to pay St. Petersburg $23,162 in legal fees and court costs.
When he found out, Weiner sat on his couch, held his head in his hands, and cried.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Weiner said. "I was the person injured, and now I'm the one told, 'You have to pay.' "
• • •
His father was a clown, and his father before that.
Weiner dedicated his life to making people laugh. He clowned before audiences of 15 and 15,000. He worked children's birthday parties, the circus circuit and warmed the audience before a Bon Jovi concert at the Meadowlands.
As Balloon-a-Tic, Weiner would make balloons, tell jokes and play gags. He'd twist the inflated multicolored latex into the shapes of dogs, cats, giraffes and aardvarks and was thrilled just to watch his audience react.
But now the metal plate in his left hand makes it too difficult to tie the knots required for balloon animals. He has short-term memory loss that makes him forget what animal he's creating midway. Backaches make standing too painful.
He blames the early morning crash on May 10, 2005. Driving a taxicab to help pay bills clowning couldn't cover, Weiner was struck by a police cruiser rushing to a scene. Everyone agrees that Weiner had the green light and that Officer Roger McCauley went through a red light.
Weiner's doctor told the jury that the force of the collision gave him arm, neck and spine injuries that sidelined him, making him unable to work either as a cabdriver or a clown.
Assistant City Attorney Joe Patner sought a second opinion. His expert, an orthopedic surgeon, told the jury that Weiner appears to have retained motor skills in his hands and any back pain or other injuries stem from a pre-existing degenerative condition.
As for who was to blame, another witness said that McCauley had his emergency lights flashing and did everything to avoid the crash.
The jury was never told about McCauley's two-day suspension. In Florida, juries can't hear about tickets or other administrative actions taken from traffic crashes because they must limit their deliberations to the facts of the case, not conclusions of those facts made by others. The officer's suspension only reflects that police are held to a higher standard, not that McCauley was to blame, Patner said.
Still, Patner had offered Weiner $20,000 to settle, which Weiner refused. In Florida, if plaintiffs aren't awarded 75 percent of what was offered in an earlier settlement, they are responsible for fees and costs. The law is meant to encourage plaintiffs to accept reasonable offers.
Because the jury found Weiner and the city equally at fault, Weiner only walked away with $5,000 in damages. That means he technically fell below the $15,000 he needed to avoid liability.
Patner asked Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge George Jirotka to make Weiner pay $18,000 for his billable hours and about $9,000 in court costs.
"I spent 93 hours on this lawsuit," Patner said. "So I couldn't spend time on other cases. The primary function of my job is to protect taxpayer money, and part of that is to recover costs. (Weiner) turned down a reasonable offer, and there's a risk to that."
Weiner doesn't know how he will pay. He and his wife plan to short-sell their Historic Kenwood bungalow. His health issues make it hard for him to be optimistic about the future, knowing he can't do what he loves best.
"Everyone has a gift," Weiner said. "My gift is to make people smile — and I can't do that anymore."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]