Nick Bollea and John Graziano became fast friends after meeting at an auto show six years ago.
Graziano was a frequent passenger as Bollea zipped around Clearwater in his souped-up Toyota Supra. Graziano, 23, became a surrogate son of sorts to Nick's father, Terry Bollea, also known as Hulk Hogan.
After 17-year-old Nick crashed his car Aug. 26, leaving Graziano facing a lifetime of care, the Bolleas frequently visited the hospital and paid for some of the Grazianos' expenses.
"Two mothers are comforting each other and caring for each other's children," Debbie Graziano said just days after her son's injury. "& We are two families who love John."
But in recent weeks the ties frayed, with Nick, his mother and his sister barred from visiting Graziano. On Monday the friendship officially severed when Graziano's attorneys filed suit against three members of the Bollea family and one friend.
The 22-page suit, filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court, alleges three counts of negligence on the part of Terry Bollea and one count each for his wife, Linda; his son, Nick; and family friend, Daniel Jacobs.
George Tragos and Kimberley Kohn, the lawyers representing Graziano, said the suit was necessary to provide money for Graziano's long-term care.
Graziano, a Marine who served in Iraq, suffered severe head injuries in the crash. A part of his frontal lobe had to be removed, lawyers said, and he is currently in a "semiconscious" state and can respond to only some stimuli. The extent of care he will require still remains unclear, the lawyers said. "He will never be fully the John that he was before," Tragos said. "We have to plan for what his lifelong care would be."
That figure, which will be in the millions, will be a critical part of calculating the damages in the suit. Tragos said the medical bills already top $1-million. The proceeds from any lawsuit will go to a trust set up for Graziano, not directly to his parents, Ed and Debbie Graziano.
"I would not want to defend this case," said Lee Coppock, a professor of trial advocacy at Stetson University College of Law. "I can picture the jury really backing up the truck on this one. The damages are just horrific."
A "life care plan" will be calculated, Coppock said, and from that the two sides will argue the liability. Coppock said Graziano would be entitled to more if it appeared rehabilitation was possible and less if his condition could not be improved.
Dr. Siviero Agazzi, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of South Florida, said the removal of one of the frontal lobes is a common treatment for trauma and would not in itself cause a noticeable decrease in a patient's ability to function. But added to other brain injuries, the effect on the patient could be devastating.
The suit focuses the blame on Nick Bollea's parents for enabling and even encouraging him to drive recklessly. Neither would comment Monday.
Terry Bollea, the family patriarch, is accused of three negligent acts:
• He was a co-owner, with Nick, of the Toyota Supra that was involved in the crash and he owned the silver Dodge Viper, driven by Daniel Jacobs, which police said Nick was racing at the time of the crash.
• He signed his son's driver's license application, which in this case means he legally assumed responsibility for his minor son's driving as if he were behind the wheel himself.
• He knew the alleged propensity of his son and Jacobs to race and drive recklessly but nonetheless gave them access to the cars.
The suit calls attention to Nick Bollea's speeding on Sept. 17, 2006, when he was pulled over twice by the Florida Highway Patrol on Alligator Alley for speeds topping 100 mph. In both traffic stops — just 19 miles apart — Terry Bollea was a passenger.
The suit cites Linda Bollea for approving of her son's dangerous driving. "Oh, I love it, I love it," the suit quotes her saying. "The rush, the speed on the road, stereo blasting, heart pounding, racing in between all the cars, dodging the cops. It's awesome." Linda Bollea made the remarks on Vehicular Lunatics, a 2005 documentary about street racing and fast cars.
According to the suit, Nick Bollea, who faces a criminal charge of reckless driving with serious bodily injury, is liable for speeding, racing and consuming alcohol as an underage minor.
And Daniel Jacobs, a friend of Nick's, is named in the suit for his part in racing against Nick at the time of the crash.
It was unclear what assets Jacobs had, but the Bollea fortune is thought to be in the millions. Lawyers for Graziano said any judgment or settlement would come largely from these assets, above and beyond any insurance coverage.
Attorney Morris "Sandy" Weinberg Jr., who is representing Nick and Terry Bollea, said the suit was not a surprise. But he said Graziano's decision not to wear a seat belt was largely to blame for the severity of his injuries.
"Nick lost his older brother, basically, and for the Bollea family, they considered John to essentially be a member of the family," Weinberg said. "But John had been cited for not wearing a seat belt a few months before the accident and trained as a driver in the military with strict rules about wearing seat belts. Except for the fact that he didn't have a seat belt, we wouldn't be talking about this kind of case."
But Tragos said, "The seat belt didn't hit that tree. The car hit the tree."
Jonathan Abel can be reached at (727) 445-4157.