Courts

Jury award in West Miami-Dade double fatality DUI crash: $35 million

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

A Miccosukee man must pay $35 million to the family of a retired Maryland couple he killed in a drunk-driving wreck on Tamiami Trail, a jury has ruled.

Jurors in the wrongful death lawsuit against Thomas Cypress decided on Monday that he should pay $5 million in punitive damages to the adult children of Robert and Paulette Kirkpatrick. That verdict came days after the same jury ordered Cypress to pay a staggering $30 million in compensatory damages.

“I think the jury honored our parents by sending a message to our community that drinking and driving is not something it is going to stand for,” said Steven Kirkpatrick, the couple’s son.

Cypress, the brother of former Miccosukee tribal chairman Billy Cypress, is doing 12 years in prison for the double DUI manslaughter conviction. Thomas Cypress, who pleaded guilty in 2010, chose not to attend the civil trial, although a judge cleared the way for him to leave prison for the trial.

Retired teachers Robert and Paulette Kirkpatrick were in Florida for an art show and vacation. Robert had been exhibiting his art work in Naples.

Cypress’ blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit in February 2009 when he veered his truck into the opposite lane on the Tamiami Trail in West Miami-Dade, smashing into the sedan rented by the victims, both 63.

At the time of the crash, Cypress was driving with a suspended license after an earlier DUI charge. Before that, he had twice been arrested on DUI charges, including one in 2004 that was dismissed because court-hearing notices could not be served at the sovereign tribal reservation deep in the Everglades.

The deadly crash came at a sensitive time for the Miccosukees, who were sparring with Miami-Dade prosecutors over the release of tribal police records chronicling a separate fatal crash involving a tribe member.

Whether the Kirkpatrick children ever see any of the money from the judgment remains to be seen.

The family of Liliana Bermudez, killed in a DUI wreck with a tribal member in 1998, sued the driver and the car’s owner. A jury four years ago awarded Bermudez’s family $3.2 million in damages. But payment of the judgment has been mired in court battles ever since. In June, a Miami-Dade judge ordered the tribe to pay the judgment because it was revealed that tribe itself had paid for the legal bills of the plaintiffs.

The tribe has come under increasing legal scrutiny in recent years.

The Miccosukees are now suing the federal government over $170 million owed to the IRS from its gambling revenue for members.

The crux of the suit: The contention that in 2005, the IRS reached a “secret deal” with Billy Cypress, his personal lawyer and the tribe’s general counsel to hand over the financial records of certain tribal members. The tribe argues that the U.S. government has exploited that “bargain” to wage an unconstitutional tax war against the West Miami-Dade tribe.

In Thomas Cypress’ case, there was no dispute that he was liable for the deaths of the Kirkpatricks.

At a two-day trial last week, the jury heard from their children, Jennifer and Steven, and fire-rescue personnel who responded to the scene of the car crash. They deliberated about 15 minutes in deciding to award the relatives $30 million.

On Monday, the Kirkpatrick’s lawyers, brothers Judd and Brett Rosen, suggested to jurors that Cypress had the means to pay even more money. The reason: after his arrest, he had hired high-powered defense lawyer Roy Black. But Cypress’ lawyers filed an affidavit from Cypress saying he was essentially broke.

Jurors deliberated nearly two hours in deciding on the additional $5 million.

The extra judgment should serve as a deterrent to Cypress, who is scheduled to leave prison in 2020, Brett Rosen told jurors.

“When Thomas Cypress gets out prison, there is no telling how he is going to interact with alcohol,” he said.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

  • Friends and Neighbors

    Friends and Neighbors: Campaign raises money to feed hungry school children

    Local food banks want to help children who often go hungry get what they need to thrive in school. Community support is needed.

  • Friends and Neighbors

    Florida Mayors join forces to say no to bullies

    Looking back at my growing up days, I can remember how school bullies tried to made life miserable for me and a lot of other youngsters. I remember being followed home one day by a bully who wanted to start a fight. When I kept ignoring her, she soon turned, with her followers and went home. Unlike some of today’s bullies, she didn’t try to hit me. She was just all mouth, spitting out insulting remarks.

  • Crime Watch

    Crime Watch: How to protect your children online

    School will be starting soon and many of you emailed me regarding the social network sites that your kids will be using this year. Nowadays it’s not just the computer at home but also their smartphones. You need to consider blocking your kids’ phones from some of these sites. Check with your telephone carrier to see what programs they have to offer in protecting kids.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category