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Hillsborough to sue insurance company for blocking wrongful death settlement

TAMPA — Two years into a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the family of a 39-year-old nurse and mother of three killed after her car slammed into the back of a disabled Hillsborough County semitrailer truck, county lawyers aren't liking their case.

One thing stands in the way of the family of Darcia Dominguez collecting a settlement of up to $2 million for her death, though: the county's insurance company.

Hillsborough County government is poised to sue Star Insurance Co., which the county's attorneys say is preventing settlement talks. County commissioners approved a request by attorneys Wednesday to sue Star over the impasse, forcing a judge to decide whether the insurer has veto power over a settlement between Hillsborough and the victim's family.

"It's really appalling what the (insurance) carrier has put our clients through, and really, what they've put the county through as well," said Ian Osur, the Miami attorney representing Dominguez's estate.

Attorneys representing Star could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Dominguez was driving home from a nursing shift at Brandon Regional Hospital the morning of Feb. 6, 2010, when her 2005 MINI Cooper crashed into the back of a Hillsborough Solid Waste Management Department truck pulled over on Veterans Expressway, near Hillsborough Avenue. The wreck left Dominguez critically injured; she died five days later.

The Florida Highway Patrol ruled in 2010 that Dominguez was at fault, not Santiago Hasbun, the Hillsborough truck driver. The truck's engine died, Hasbun told troopers, and traffic prevented him from pulling onto the shoulder, so he stopped the truck in the roadway and put warning cones behind it. He tried to turn on emergency blinkers, he said, but the truck was out of power and they didn't work.

The weather was clear that morning, troopers noted in the traffic homicide investigation, and Dominguez should have been able to see the truck up ahead. There were no signs that she did, troopers concluded. Dominguez did not brake before her car ran over one cone and hit the truck.

Osur, the lawyer representing Dominguez's estate, disagrees with the Highway Patrol's conclusions.

Hasbun should have pulled the truck onto the grass median and placed the warning cones behind the truck improperly, Osur said. Testimony given by other county employees in pretrial depositions bolster his case, Osur said, but he declined to release transcripts or any other evidence.

An attempt to reach Hasbun was unsuccessful.

Stephen Todd, Hillsborough's trial attorney in the case, also declined to release deposition transcripts, which are not public while the case is open.

The agenda for Wednesday's commission meeting said Hills­borough's lawyers feel there's "significant risk of a substantial verdict against the county" in this case, but Todd declined to elaborate on the specifics.

"We're interested in meaningful settlement discussions," County Attorney Chip Fletcher said Wednesday. "Without the insurer at the table, that's not really possible."

Star provided auto insurance for Hillsborough in 2010, with a liability limit of $2 million. The insurer and Hillsborough's lawyers disagree on several aspects of state law and the auto policy, but there's one core disagreement, according to Todd: Star thinks it can block a settlement.

"I think the statute is pretty clear, and we can go ahead and settle," Todd said. "Our problem is the insurance company isn't going to pay it."

Hillsborough's lawsuit against Star could take months or years, Fletcher said. Meanwhile, Osur plans to move forward with his wrongful-death case. He's offered to settle three times for $2 million or less, he said. Each time, Star has rejected his offer.

"If we get a verdict in the multimillions of dollars, the county will be responsible, and Star Insurance will be responsible," Osur said. "I've never seen anything so blatantly wrong in my 34 years of practice."

Contact Will Hobson at whobson or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.