TAMPA — The family of a Bayshore Boulevard man who was killed by an out-of-control Pinch A Penny truck has filed a wrongful death suit, saying the pool supply company knew that the man behind the wheel had a history of driving under the influence.
The estate of the late George Williams Gage III names eight defendants in the lawsuit, including John C. Thomas, owner of Clearwater-based Pinch A Penny Pool Patio & Spa, and Burek Inc., the company franchise that employed the driver.
The lawsuit says all of them are 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. He was speeding down Bayshore Boulevard with a blood-alcohol content level of 0.234 – nearly three times the legal limit – when the truck jumped the curb and struck Gage as he walked, killing the 70-year-old retired finance executive, authorities said.
Gage and his wife, Susan Gage, had been married for 45 years at the time of the collision and had two adult children, the lawsuit says. Susan Gage is seeking medical expenses, funeral costs and other damages in addition to judgments on eight counts of negligence and wrongful death.
The crash could have been avoided had Ehas’ employers heeded warnings that he consumed drugs and alcohol while on the job, the lawsuit says.
One client of the South Dale Mabry Highway franchise where Ehas worked — South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services — complained of his behavior just days before the collision, the lawsuit claims.
Ehas, 32, worked for South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services, a Pinch A Penny franchise at 3440 S Dale Mabry Highway. A client complained about his behavior, the lawsuit says, calling franchise owners John and Pauline Burek and submitting a grievance through the Pinch A Penny website.
The client, a man, is not identified in the lawsuit. Ehas was sent to his home on a service call Christmas Eve and parked the Pinch A Penny pickup truck in the median in front of the man’s home. Later that afternoon, several hours after Ehas had finished his work, the man’s wife noticed the truck still parked in the median and Ehas slumped over in the driver’s seat, the lawsuit says.
The man walked out to the truck and banged on the hood to wake Ehas up, the lawsuit said. When he did, the lawsuit says, it was apparent Ehas was under the influence.
“Despite informing defendants that Benjamin Douglas Ehas had clearly been under the influence while on the job and driving a Pinch A Penny pickup truck, defendants continued to employee Benjamin Douglas Ehas and allowed him to continue as a pool service maintenance technician and driver of a Pinch A Penny pickup truck,” the lawsuit states.
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.
Ehas faces charges of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide – each a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. He’s being held in Hillsborough County jail without bond, court records show. The next hearing in his case is scheduled for June 10.
A call Tuesday to a Pinch A Penny spokeswoman and a company attorney were not returned.
At the time of the collision, in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Pinch A Penny said Ehas was an “employee of a franchised location” and no longer worked for the company.
A spokeswoman declined to respond to questions about the crash or the company’s hiring and substance abuse policies, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
John Burek, the franchise holder, said in a statement at the time, "We intend to cooperate fully with local law enforcement throughout the ongoing investigation. We extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of those involved.”
Pinch A Penny was founded in Clearwater in 1975 and has about 160 operations in Florida plus 19 across Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, according to its website.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that George Gage was jogging when he was struck and killed.