A father teared up and hugged his teenage son Friday when a Miami-Dade circuit judge held the Miccosukee Tribe responsible for paying a $3.2 million judgment to the pair, who lost their wife and mother in a head-on car crash caused by a tribe member.
Carlos Bermudez, 44, and his son Mathew, 16, have been waiting four years to collect the judgment from the Miccosukee driver and her father. Tammy Gwen Billie was behind the wheel of an uninsured car, owned by her dad, when she crashed, killing 30-year-old Liliana Bermudez on the Tamiami Trail in 1998.
“It’s been a long time,” Carlos Bermudez, a truck driver, said after the judge ruled.
“This is a major victory for the Bermudez family,” said their attorney, Ramon M. Rodriguez.
The Miccosukee Tribe plans to appeal the decision, however, so it’s unclear how much longer the family might have to wait to collect any payout.
The high-profile dispute arose because Billie and her father Jimmie Bert maintained they could not pay the judgment, which a jury awarded after the defendants admitted liability at a 2009 trial. Rodriguez asserted that since the tribe paid for the $3.1 million legal defense and directed the strategy, the Miccosukees were effectively a “party” to the wrongful-death lawsuit, though the tribe was not named as a defendant.
Lawyers for the tribe countered that the tribe has sovereign immunity under federal law and could not be held liable for the judgment. But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick disagreed, saying the tribe could not hide behind that shield in state circuit court because it paid all of the legal expenses and controlled the direction of the case.
The judge cited a Miami-Dade Third District Court of Appeal decision involving a non-Native American Indian lawsuit to justify his ruling.
“I think there’s a waiver of sovereign immunity,” Dresnick declared, marking the first time a judge has made such a ruling in a Florida circuit court. “They are a party.”
As a result, Dresnick added the Miccosukee Tribe as a “debtor” to the judgment, which now totals more than $4 million with interest.
Rodriguez, who has waged a seemingly quixotic battle to recover the judgment for the Bermudez family, distilled the central issue for the judge.
“The millions of dollars that the Miccosukee Tribe paid in legal fees was designed to prevent the Bermudez family from being compensated for their tragic loss,” Rodriguez wrote in his court motion. “The Miccosukee Tribe made the choice to spend its significant resources on litigation instead of paying down the final judgment.”
The Miccosukees’ lead lawyer, Bernardo Roman III, and his legal staff strongly disagreed. Roman countered that even though he turned over copies of 61 checks to Rodriguez showing the tribe directly paid the defendants’ attorneys — former federal prosecutors Guy Lewis and Michael Tein — the Miccosukees did not give up their sovereignty. Therefore, he contended, the tribe cannot be named as another party in the suit for the purpose of paying the judgment.
“The tribe is absolutely immune,” Miccosukee lawyer Yinet Pino told the judge. “That is federal law.”
Pino, assisted by attorney Yesenia Rey at Friday’s hearing, said the Miccosukees plan to appeal.