TAMPA — A Tampa jury has awarded more than $17 million in damages to the widow of a man killed by an out-of-control Pinch A Penny truck on Bayshore Boulevard two years ago.
A six-member jury decided Wednesday that negligence on the part of a Pinch A Penny franchise called South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services and its owner contributed to the crash that killed George Williams Gage III while the 70-year-old retired finance executive was out on his daily walk.
The jury awarded Gage’s widow Susan, the representative of his estate, $17 million in compensatory damages and another $505,000 in punitive damages, court records show.
“I think it accurately reflects the loss and the damage here,” said Bennie Lazzara, Jr., Susan Gage’s attorney. “George Gage was a very special man. He was active in his church, he was active in his community. This was a marriage of 46 years that in an instant was just wiped out.”
It’s unclear if the franchise owner, John Burek, plans to appeal. His attorney, Martin Stern, said Friday that he was unable to comment for this story.
The verdict came after six days of testimony in a trial stemming from a lawsuit Susan Gage filed about six months after her husband was killed. The lawsuit named eight defendants, including Pinch A Penny as a franchisor, and claimed they all were responsible for allowing pool service technician Benjamin Ehas to drive a company F-150 pickup truck while under the influence of drugs and alcohol on Jan. 9, 2020.
The case against Pinch A Penny as a franchisor and three other related parties who were named as defendants was resolved outside of court, Lazzara said. He declined to provide more details. A message left at Pinch A Penny’s corporate headquarters in Clearwater on Friday was not immediately returned.
Burek, as a registered agent of Burek, Inc., which does business as South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services, and Ehas, who was also named as a defendant, opted to go to trial. An attorney listed for Ehas did not immediately return a message Friday.
Ehas, 32 at the time, was speeding down Bayshore Boulevard with a blood-alcohol content level of 0.234 – nearly three times the legal limit – when the truck veered off the road near Julia Street, plowed over a curb, across the grassy shoulder and onto the sidewalk, where it slammed into Gage. He was thrown into Hillsborough Bay and died soon after.
Ehas told Tampa police officers he took Xanax before bed the night before the crash and by 11 a.m. the next day had also smoked marijuana, drunk a double shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky and taken a dose of Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid dependence. Police obtained surveillance video and a receipt showing that Ehas had purchased the double shot of Fireball at a liquor store on Gandy Boulevard minutes before the crash, according to court records.
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Ehas pleaded guilty in December 2020 to DUI manslaughter in exchange for a 12-year prison sentence.
The crash could have been avoided had Ehas’ employers heeded warnings that he consumed drugs and alcohol while on the job, the lawsuit alleged.
The lawsuit said a client complained about Ehas’ behavior on Christmas Eve in 2019, calling franchise owners John and Pauline Burek and submitting a grievance through the Pinch A Penny website. Ehas was sent to the client’s home on a service call and parked the Pinch A Penny pickup in the median in front of the man’s home. Later that afternoon, the man’s wife noticed the truck in the same place and Ehas slumped over in the driver’s seat while the engine was running.
The man walked out to the truck and banged on the hood to wake Ehas up. It was apparent Ehas was under the influence, the lawsuit said.
That client testified during the civil trial. So did another client who also complained to the company after finding Ehas asleep in his truck while he was at her home for a service call eight days earlier, Lazzara said.
“She was concerned that he was under the influence and she didn’t want him back on the property,” Lazzara said.
Lazzara said that due to concerns about Ehas’ work performance, his bosses placed a GPS device on his service truck a few days before the crash. The GPS data showed that on the morning of Jan. 7, two days before the crash, Ehas stopped at a liquor store after starting his shift, Lazzara said. But testimony revealed that no one at South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services checked the GPS data between the time it was placed on the truck and the crash, Lazarra said.
Tampa police got the GPS data after the crash and it showed Ehas stopped at two liquor stores that same morning, one of them the ABC location on Gandy, Lazzara said.
He said the company never required Ehas to submit to a drug and alcohol screening.
“Our position was they had ample opportunity to prevent this and they didn’t,” he said.
For Susan Gage, “there’s no joy” in the verdict, Lazzara said.
“This is something that she felt she had to do, that George would want her to do,” he said. “The main thing she told me from the beginning was, ‘I just don’t want to see this happen to somebody else.’”