$1.4 Million Verdict Involving Negligent Tow Truck Operator

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 4.22.34 PMFORT LAUDERDALE, FL — December 21, 2003 was a day that changed the lives of the Dorleans family forever. Esther and Rachelle Dorleans, a mother and daughter, set out from their home near Ocala that afternoon in their Acura Integra to visit Esther’s sister in Miami. Rachelle, who was seventeen, had just started Christmas vacation. Leonard Dorleans, the father, remained home to tend to the family’s garden.

Esther and Rachelle eventually traveled south in western Broward County on SR27. The weather was beautiful, clear and dry and the sky was full of stars. Just before 7:00 p.m. the sun had set in the West and day turned to night. Just after 7:00 p.m. it was pitch black along this roadway because this was the time of year when the sun sets the earliest and the quickest. There are no highway lights along this roadway. The Sunday evening traffic was light as Esther and Rachelle drove toward the interchange with Alligator Alley ahead.

Rachelle saw blue police lights in the distance toward the center of the wide grassy median. Rachelle asked her mother to slow down so she could see the activity. As they approached the police lights Esther was traveling at or below the speed limit. She focused on the police lights as she approached operating her vehicle with due care that fateful night. Unfortunately, a roadway obstruction caused by the carelessness of a tow truck operator laid in the shadows.

A Broward Sheriff Office deputy had parked his cruiser in the grassy median as part of the investigation of a serious rollover accident that occurred around 5:00 p.m. Unbeknownst to Esther and Rachelle, Mr. Abbott, a tow truck operator had negligently parked a flat bed tow truck loaded with a boat and a trailer in the southbound fast lane directly in their path of travel. The glaring rear emergency lights from the cruiser lit up the roadway to the North, but the tow truck which was to the South in front of the cruiser was shrouded in darkness. Seconds before the accident the unlit tow truck came into the view. Esther swerved to the right, but it was too late to avoid the wreck.

It was the failure to do the simple reasonable things like parking the tow truck in a safe place off of the roadway; placing caution cones behind the tow truck as required by law; or, even turning on the tow truck emergency lights that caused this tragedy. The collision was so violent that it sheared the roof off of the Acura on the driver’s side.

Esther had to be airlifted to Broward General Medical Center where a trauma team worked in earnest to attend to her critical injuries. She spent almost one month in the hospital undergoing multiple surgeries and recovering before she could go home. Her neurosurgeon describes her head injury as a life threatening injury. She suffered a brain injury. Esther’s orthopedic surgeon described that her left leg was broken in two places: just below the knee and just above the ankle.

The Dorleans’s family contacted Sam Coffey to seek representation. After years of hard fought litigation the Dorleans family received their day in Court. Abbott and Westway Towing denied fault for this accident and attempted to shift blame to Esther and the police officer on scene. Fortunately, for the Dorleans family this accident was investigated by a homicide investigator on behalf of the Broward Sheriff’s Office who photographed the scene. The photographs did not lie. Skid marks from the tow truck tires established that all four tires were on the hard surface of the highway and that the grass in the median was undisturbed. This meant that at the time of the crash the tow truck was blocking the travel lane and not on the grassy shoulder at all as claimed by Abbott.

Abbott also claimed that it was still daylight when the accident occurred. However, Rachelle, along with the deputy on scene and even the defendant ’s own accident reconstruction expert agreed that it was after dark when the accident occurred. Finally, Abbott claimed that he placed caution cones on the highway before the accident. The jury heard from the deputy that he never saw Abbott place caution cones.

After many days of trial the jury returned a verdict awarding damages of $1.4 million to the Dorleans family to compensate them for their losses. The verdict greatly exceeded the insurance policy limit of the tow truck company. Esther, Leonard and Rachelle Dorleans still live just outside of Ocala, Florida with their extended family while this matter remains on appeal.

After trial Sam Coffey commented, “The tow truck operator’s poor judgment and the failure to do the simple reasonable things were the obvious causes of this tragedy. His decision to deny his role in this accident and blame the victim was transparent, at best. The defenses were flatly rejected by the jury as evidenced by the verdict for the Dorleans family.”

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