DEAR FLORIDA CAR ACCIDENT LAWYER,
I WAS HIT BY A DUI DRIVER WHO HAS NO AUTO INSURANCE HOW DO I GET MONEY?
SOL in Miami
DEAR SOL in MIAMI,
THANK YOU FOR YOUR EMAIL. MAYBE WE CAN HELP.
I have been a Florida personal injury lawyer since 1991, and having personally investigated thousands of car, truck, motorcycle, bicycle, and pedestrian accidents, the best advice I can give you is that if you own a vehicle in Florida, the best way to protect yourself and your family is to make sure you have purchased uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. This is a type of insurance that will pay you money for lost wages, medical expenses, and pain and suffering in the event that the person or persons who hit you don’t have insurance or not enough of it. Moreover, it costs just a few dollars a day more to have it.[iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/muviFDzG9bk” align=”center”]
Take for instance the recent case of Thomas Dixon. Mr. Dixon was hit head-on by Gerardo Alcebo, who was driving under the influence of alcohol and without any auto insurance. Mr. Alcebo was convicted of drunk driving causing a bodily injury.
Fortunately, Mr. Dixon had purchased uninsured/underinsured coverage from GEICO of $20,000 per person. Now, just because you have the coverage does not mean that the insurance company will pay without a fight. Of course, GEICO refused to pay the coverage, and Mr. Dixon sued his insurer, claiming that it breached the insurance contract for failure to pay the amount of the uninsured motorist coverage. He also sued Mr. Alcebo as a co-defendant, seeking both compensatory and punitive damages against him for negligence and recklessness for his drunk driving.
Right before the trial, both Mr. Alcebo and GEICO admitted to his having caused the accident, and the Monroe County trial judge ordered that Mr. Dixon could ask for punitive damages from Mr. Alcebo for driving under the influence of alcohol. That meant that the only issue for the jury to decide would be the amount of compensatory remuneration (money meant to compensate Mr. Dixon) and punitive damages money (meant to punish Mr. Alcebo) would be awarded.
GEICO, as a clever and difficult an insurance company as ever, did not want the jury to hear about the DUI as it feared that the information might influence the jury’s potential verdict, for which it would be responsible to pay; after all, Mr. Alcebo had no insurance, and Mr. Dixon had purchased this coverage for precisely this reason.
The trial judge agreed with GEICO and bifurcated the case, which means separating the two issues: First, a compensatory trial to determine the amount, and then a second trial on punitive damages, which would have deprived Mr. Dixon of the ability to argue to the jury that Mr. Alcebo was drunk at the time of the accident. However, the court did not follow GEICO’s plan. Instead, the trial judge allowed Mr. Dixon’s lawyers to tell the jury about the DUI and offer evidence and argument based on Mr. Alcebo’s intoxication during the compensatory phase.
In fact, according to court records, Mr. Alcebo’s drunk driving became the central focus of the first trial, thanks in large part to the trial judge himself, who instructed the jury–even before the first witness was called–that he had found that punitive damages were warranted against Mr. Alcebo as “punishment to him and as a deterrent to others . . . for driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages . . . to the extent that his normal faculties were impaired while having a blood alcohol level of .08 or higher and during the course of such driving . . . he caused . . . bodily injury to Mr. Dixon.”
Mr. Dixon’s lawyer argued throughout the case that Mr. Alcebo’s drunk driving was “a conscious decision to operate a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol” and told the jury that “GEICO stands in the shoes of Alcebo” for the purpose of compensating Mr. Dixon. In fact, the first witness called to testify was the state trooper who investigated the DUI charges.
Technically, since the case had been bifurcated, the only issue for the jury in the compensatory trial should have been to determine if Mr. Dixon had sustained a permanent injury from the accident and the amount of money to be awarded. Rather, Mr. Dixon’s lawyer, with what appears to be some serious help from the bench, made Mr. Alcebo’s DUI and callousness in causing Mr. Dixon’s injury the trial’s central focus. In fact, Mr. Alcebo did not even attend the trial.
The jury found that Mr. Dixon had suffered a permanent injury and returned the following verdict:
- $970,396.62 in compensatory damages,
- $33,600.00 for future medical expenses, and
- $288,000.00 for loss of future earning capacity.
Of course, GEICO appealed. Appeals arising out of Monroe County personal injury verdicts are decided in Miami’s Third District Court of Appeal. GEICO claimed that given the admission of liability and bifurcation of damages, the trial court had erred in allowing the admission of evidence of the DUI. Predictably, the appellate court agreed, finding that the evidence of the DUI was irrelevant to the issue of the amount of money Mr. Dixon could be entitled to simply to compensate him. This balancing act for the admission of any evidence–ranging from a DUI as in this case to factors such as the immigration status of a party, previous claims, certain criminal issues, etc.–consists of determining whether or not the value of the admission of that evidence is outweighed by the prejudice it may cause the objecting party’s right to a fair trial.
Here the appellate court found that the value of the admission of the DUI evidence was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, therefore reversing the entire verdict and sending the matter back to the trial court with instructions to have a new trial phase one, without mentioning the DUI.
This case shows that your simply buying the right insurance does not mean that companies like GEICO, State Farm, Allstate, or Progressive will simply write you a check if you are involved in an accident. It often takes representation by a skilled and experienced Florida car accident lawyer to sue the insurers and sometimes take them to trial, an appeal, and a retrial before justice can finally be had.
While GEICO’s adorable gecko or Progressive’s fictional salesperson Flo can make purchasing auto insurance look like fun, it is serious business, and the insurer’s profits are defended by skilled, well-funded, and aggressive defense lawyers. You need a lawyer who is Board Certified in Civil Trial in your corner, like me. For more than 25 years, my Miami personal injury law firm, Aronfeld Trial Lawyers, has taken on the big auto insurance companies in cases on behalf of people who have been seriously injured across the State of Florida.
We offer free initial consultations to anyone who has a potential claim for a Florida car accident, Florida slip and fall accident, injury on a cruise ship, medical malpractice, or nursing home abuse. We are ready to help you get money for your medical expenses, time lost from work, and pain and suffering.
¹Mr. Alcebo was convicted under Florida Statute § 316.193(3)(a), (b) and (c)(2), Fla. Stat. (2015).
²GEICO also appealed the jury’s verdict for future lost wage and medical expense award. Which was also reversed on other grounds, namely due to a “complete absence of any testimony, either lay or expert, evidencing, with reasonable certainty” his entitlement to these damages.
³GEICO GENERAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Appellant, vs. THOMAS A. DIXON, Appellee. 3rd District. Case No. 3D13-3005. L.T. Case No. 11-117-K. Opinion filed January 4, 2017.