Saturday, January 20, 2018
Politics

Tampa fights injured biker's claim 12 years after $18M verdict

TAMPA — It has been nearly 20 years since Ramiro Companioni Jr. almost died in a crash with a city Water Department truck and more than 10 since a jury awarded him about $18 million.

It was the largest personal injury verdict ever against City Hall, following a trial about the gruesome injuries Companioni suffered when his motorcycle collided with the city truck. One trauma surgeon testified that the impact ripped his legs apart "like breaking a wishbone."

He needed 300 units of blood, spent a month in an induced coma, and had a catheter for two years. He lost his large intestine, spleen and two-thirds of his liver.

When doctors first saw him, they "sort of … gave him up for dead," the surgeon said. He recovered enough to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of his life.

But so far, Companioni, 53, has seen just $100,000 of the jury's award in 2004.

That's Florida's limit on negligence claims against cities unless the Legislature approves a claims bill for more and the governor signs off. A claims bill to pay Companioni was filed for this legislative session, but it, like three previous bills, appears doomed.

"We think that jury verdict was completely off base," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa's third mayor since Companioni filed his lawsuit. "We intend to fight this as long as we have to fight it."

What a fight it has been.

In the legal arena, the city has sought a new trial at the 2nd District Court of Appeal and the Florida Supreme Court, losing on fine points of courtroom procedure.

But in the Legislature, the claims process is more wide open.

"No limits," said Tallahassee lawyer Daryl Parks, who is not involved in Companioni's bill. All kinds of issues can be brought up, he said, and some governments would "rather pay their defense lawyers hundreds of thousands of dollars than pay that claim."

As part of the claims review process, George Meros, a Tallahassee lawyer hired by the city, contended in 2014 that giving Companioni money could put the public at risk because he has long been "a danger to himself and others."

To back that up, Meros' firm has grilled Companioni about speeding tickets — a dozen before the accident — delved into domestic violence charges against him, taken testimony from people who say he threatened them, scoured his Facebook posts and unearthed allegations he tried to shoplift porn and poison cats.

"This attempt to smear Ramiro is just subterfuge and is not anything the Legislature should consider," said Companioni's attorney, Lance Block of Tallahassee.

But special hearing master Tom Thomas told Block in 2014 that legislators "will want to know and our job is to find out everything," including "bad acts."

Companioni himself doesn't deny he has had some problems.

But.

"Everything physically, emotionally, spiritually that I have suffered since the accident has been the result of what happened to me on that day," he said in a deposition in 2014. "I've been abused, demeaned, disrespected, falsely accused."

• • •

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

Until that day, Companioni, then 33, was a chef and ice carver who had worked for many Tampa restaurants and caterers, as well as a Cancun, Mexico, resort serving 6,400 meals a day.

"Extremely talented," said a friend and former boss, La Teresita owner Louis Capdevila. "He had that potential of governing a kitchen from A to Z."

He served in the Navy Reserve, was a Shriner and was engaged to be married. He competed in food shows, hoped to raise a family, and wanted his own restaurant.

About noon that day, Companioni headed east on Hillsborough Avenue on his Honda CBR 600 sport motorcycle 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 last week.

Ahead, three Tampa Water Department trucks pulled onto Hillsborough, then made their way across three lanes of traffic at no more than 25 mph.

"Like a wagon train," plumbing shop owner Steve Aguilar testified. "All three of them blocked the whole Hillsborough Avenue."

Companioni and his lawyer contended one city truck lurched into his path, giving him no chance to avoid it. Their accident reconstruction expert estimated Companioni's speed at about 20 mph faster than the truck's. Faster than that, he said, and Companioni would have died.

The city countered that Companioni negligently sped into the back of the truck. Its expert put his speed at 65 mph or faster, and concluded he was starting to veer around the truck just as it moved to change lanes.

The impact left Companioni, who was wearing a helmet, split open from the waist down.

Weeks later, Companioni woke up in a hospital bed to a doctor asking for permission to amputate both his legs. He refused.

His injuries included a fractured pelvis. He lost most of his gluteus muscles on his backside and part of his small intestine. He has poor urinary control and can't have sex. 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.

Since the crash, Companioni has worked as a Home Depot cashier and has helped with a friend's catering business, recently making Cuban sandwiches and breading chicken before Gasparilla. But he needs frequent breaks and can neither stand nor sit for long. He had a hot dog cart outside Tampa Bay Buccaneers games and sometimes took it to kids' birthday parties, dressing up as a clown, but it didn't make money.

Mostly, he said, he lies on the couch at his mobile home watching reruns of The Rockford Files, Quincy and Bonanza — "shows that remind me of better days."

Asked recently what he would say to Buckhorn, Companioni said the mayor prides himself on doing the right thing, but "where's his conscience sit with me when he knows he's not doing the right thing, when he knows the sacrifices and things that I've suffered?"

• • •

"We all empathize with his injuries," Buckhorn said the next day, "but I also have a responsibility to do what's in the best interest of the city."

So if "there were facts that were compelling that weren't considered" at trial, he said, he's got "to do what I've been doing."

Apart from Companioni himself, attorneys for the city have said the trial was flawed because they later learned that two of six jurors didn't disclose that they had felony convictions during jury selection.

"The Legislature has the right to consider whether this injustice played a role in the verdict against the city," Meros, the Tallahassee lawyer hired by the city, told claims bill hearing masters in 2014.

Beyond that, Companioni's driving history has been a key focus for the city.

At the trial, the city's attorney tried to introduce the fact that on the day of the crash, Companioni's license was suspended. That fact alone, the city has contended, shows negligence on his part. But jurors didn't hear it.

Companioni said he didn't know his license was suspended. He had gotten a speeding ticket in South Carolina and mailed a check for the fine. But he didn't know he couldn't pay with an out-of-state check. Then he moved, but he said notices of nonpayment and the suspension were sent to his old address.

Another focus: his marriage. Companioni got married after the accident, but he and his wife divorced amid domestic violence charges that he pushed her to the ground and punched her on separate occasions. He was found guilty and sentenced to probation.

Companioni said the marriage was troubled because of his injuries. He couldn't have sex and couldn't have children. But he didn't want his wife to leave because he needed her care.

The dossier compiled by the city's outside attorneys at the law firm of Gray Robinson, which has been paid $176,692 since 2006 to work on the claims bill, also includes:

• Sworn statements from two people: A woman said Companioni pounded the roof of her car during a traffic altercation four months before the accident. A man said Companioni threatened to shoot him in a Chili's parking lot four years after. An investigation into the first was closed after the crash. Companioni was arrested in the second. Most charges were later dropped; one resulted in acquittal.

• A 2007 Pinellas County sheriff's report quoting an adult video store clerk who said Companioni walked out with three DVDs without paying. No charges were filed, according to court records.

• A 2011 Hillsborough County court case in which investigators accused Companioni of lacing cat food with rat poison to kill stray cats in his neighborhood. He testified he was only trying to take care of a rat problem, but pleaded no contest. He was fined $515 and ordered not to own animals for two years or to put out poison for animals.

"None of these allegations" concern "the merits of this bill or the legal and moral responsibilities the city owes to Ramiro," his attorney Block said. "It is a shameful, mean-spirited campaign to avoid responsibility for seriously hurting one of its own citizens."

Companioni contends justice has not been done.

"I had hopes, dreams, goals I wanted to achieve," he said. "Money won't bring back my leg, my stomach, my colon. It won't bring back my wife, the kids I don't have, the life I haven't had for the last 20 years. It would just make my quality of life a little bit better, a little bit more tolerable."

Times staff writer Michael Auslen and senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

     
 
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