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Trial begins in fatal crash suit

A Tampa couple says landscaping contributed to an auto accident that killed their daughter.

Debra and Tom Jackson held hands in civil court Wednesday as their lawyer told a jury that landscaping along a median was partly to blame for an accident four years ago that killed their 11-year-old daughter and left another daughter brain damaged.

"No obstruction, no turn, no accident," attorney Henry Valenzuela said during opening statements.

He said trees blocked Mrs. Jackson from seeing the oncoming vehicle as she turned left into the Hunter's Green subdivision and collided with a pickup truck on Feb. 6, 1997.

Mrs. Jackson cried when her lawyer described the accident and showed a photo of her smashed car. Her husband, a Tampa Tribune columnist, sat grimmed-faced at her side, comforting her.

A jury in 1998 convicted the driver of the pickup, Harold Vann of Lutz, of DUI-manslaughter and DUI with serious bodily injury, and he was sentenced to up to 16 years in prison.

The civil trial will focus on trees and bushes planted in the median along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard at the entrance of Hunter's Green in New Tampa, where the Jacksons still live. The Jacksons claim the developer planted the trees improperly and the community association failed to maintain them safely.

An attorney for Markborough Development Co., which developed Hunter's Green, and the Hunter's Green Community Association, told jurors Wednesday that the case already had been closed by the criminal trial.

Vann caused the accident by running the red light, speeding and driving drunk, he said. Vann had plenty of room to stop in time, and Debra Jackson simply didn't know he was intoxicated and planning to run the red light when she made the turn.

"Mrs. Jackson had every opportunity to see Mr. Vann and Mr. Vann had every opportunity to see Mrs. Jackson," attorney Joel Adler said. "This median had no part in causing the accident."

The defense said witnesses will testify that the developer followed state rules for landscaping in a median and Hillsborough County oversaw the project. In addition, Ann Johnson, manager of Hunter's Green Community Association, received no complaints from residents about the intersection after the landscaping was planted in late 1994.

Adler urged jurors not to be swayed by sympathy for the grieving family. "Nobody is going to suggest that the loss of a child is anything but a parent's worst nightmare," he said.

Valenzuela told the jury they will have to decide what extent Vann was impaired. His blood alcohol level was .13 percent more than an hour after the accident. The law presumes a person to be impaired at .08 percent.

Vann was not swerving or driving erratically at the time of the accident, the Jacksons' attorney said. He reacted by hitting the brakes, leaving 106 feet of skid marks.

During the criminal trial, prosecutors said the accident was a "direct consequence" of Vann drinking too much and running a red light. During the sentencing, Debra Jackson said his decision to drink and drive killed their daughter Katherine and destroyed their daughter Elizabeth's future, who was 7 when the accident left her with permanent brain damage.

The Jacksons are seeking enough money to cover the lifelong medical costs for Elizabeth, who they say could live to the age of 50 or 60.

Their attorney said the expected costs will range from $12.7-million to $16-million. The defense said the figure was much lower, depending on her life expectancy. Adler estimated the cost at $40,000 to $45,000 a year.

_ Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3463 or