Civil suit next in girl's death

Published March 5, 1998|Updated Sept. 12, 2005

Tom and Debbie Jackson, who sat through a week of court testimony about their daughter's death in a car crash, will return to the courtroom one more time.

The couple filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Hillsborough Circuit Court against the companies that installed trees and bushes on a road where their 11-year-old daughter died last year. The lawsuit accuses the developer of Hunter's Green, two landscape companies and driver Harold Vann of causing a car crash Feb. 6, 1997, at an intersection outside the subdivision.

The suit claims trees and bushes blocked Debbie Jackson's view as she turned into the path of Vann's pickup. A jury on Monday convicted Vann of driving drunk when he struck the Jacksons' car. He will be sentenced March 2.

Jackson's daughter, Katie, 11, died in the crash and daughter Elizabeth, now 8, was left in a near-vegetative state.

"Danger lurks hidden in those trees and hollies," said Tom Jackson, a staff writer for the Tampa Tribune.

The Jacksons announced the suit Wednesday at a news conference in their attorney's office. As attorney Henry Valenzuela spoke, Debbie Jackson trembled, closed her eyes and breathed deeply.

The Jacksons also used the news conference to criticize disc jockey Bubba the Love Sponge for mocking Mrs. Jackson's courtroom demeanor. Bubba, whose real name is Todd Clem, ridiculed Mrs. Jackson on his morning radio show on WXTB-FM 98, also known as 98 Rock.

Bubba also told listeners that Mrs. Jackson, who wept openly in court, "should be on soap operas."

"You don't think she's making an ass of herself?" Bubba said, according to a tape of the show recorded by conservative activist David Caton.

Caton's Florida Family Association regularly tapes Bubba's show and let the Times listen to a recording. The Jacksons, who first heard about Bubba's comments from friends, also asked Caton for a tape.

"What Bubba did was wrong," said station operations manager Brad Hardin said. "I told him that and sat him down."

Even so, Hardin said, Bubba has the right to state his opinion, even if it offends. The Jacksons' attorney said the couple was considering suing Bubba and the radio station.

The Jacksons, who sat in court throughout Vann's criminal trial, technically were only witnesses in that case. But by filing a civil lawsuit, they can now point blame at others for the same wreck.

They say Markborough Florida, who developed Hunter's Green, and two landscaping firms, Vivicon Inc. and Terra Tectonics Design Group International Inc., installed bushes that made the intersection of Bruce B. Downs and Hunter's Green Drive dangerous.

"Big trees and shrubs don't belong in an intersection on a road like Bruce B. Downs," said Valenzuela, the Jacksons' attorney. "She was literally blindsided by that car, and their lives were changed."

Valenzuela also said the developer of Hunter's Green knew about the corner's history of crashes. He would not elaborate. Traffic records show 10 other drivers crashed at or near the intersection in 1997. In four of those wrecks, people were hurt, according to Sheriff's Office records.

Former officials of Markborough could not be reached for comment. The company last month closed its office at Hunter's Green after selling its last lot. The Hunter's Green Community Association, which also was named in the lawsuit, now maintains the subdivision's landscaping. Officials at the association did not return a phone call.

John Toner, president of Terra Tectonics, also declined to comment on the suit. He said, however, that landscaping at Hunter's Green met safety codes set by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Indeed, on the very same road, Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa plan to plant dozens of more bushes and trees next month. Volunteers will begin planting shrubs in March on 1.4 miles of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard by Tampa Palms.

_ Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report.