miccosukee tribe

Miami appeals court rules Miccosukees don’t have to pay $4 million judgment in car-crash case

 

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

A state appeals court ruled Wednesday that the Miccosukee Tribe should not have to pay a $4.1 million jury award to a Miami truck driver for the loss of his wife, who was killed by an intoxicated tribal member in a car crash that has been mired in five years of legal battles.

The court found that the trial judge made a mistake by ordering the tribe, which lives in the Everglades in West Miami-Dade, to pay the judgment last year instead of the actual defendants — the driver of the car and her father, who owned the uninsured vehicle.

The Third District Court of Appeal’s ruling means that Carlos Bermudez and his son cannot collect a 2009 jury award from the tribe. The family has been unable to collect the judgment from the two defendants, tribe members Tammy Gwen Billie and Jimmie Bert, because they claim they’re broke. Authorities had determined that Billie had drugs in her system when she rammed into the family’s car on the Tamiami Trail in 1998, killing 30-year-old mother Liliana Bermudez.

For the defense, the Miccosukee Tribe fronted almost $3 million in legal payments to a pair of high-profile Miami lawyers in a trial where the defendants, Billie and Bert, admitted liability at the outset.

The three-judge appeals panel expressed sympathy for the Bermudez family, while chastising the Miccosukees for not making the defendants use annual income drawn from the tribe’s casino profits to pay the long-owed judgment. Each of the 600 Miccosukee members collects $164,000 a year from the tribe’s gambling operation.

“This is the tenth time this case has come before this tribunal,” wrote Third DCA Judge Thomas Logue. “In the final analysis, we are sympathetic with the frustration that the Bermudez family may justly feel because the family’s attempts to collect its judgment have been thwarted.”

“[We] may wonder at the wisdom of the tribe in squandering legal fees and community goodwill in amounts that exceed the money required simply to pay the judgment,” Logue wrote. “No law, however, supports Bermudez’s claim” to have the tribe pay the judgment.

The Bermudez family’s attorney, Ramon M. Rodriguez, said his clients were “deeply disappointed” and planned to challenge the ruling.

“They certainly will continue to pursue the full measure of justice they are rightfully entitled to receive,” Rodriguez said Wednesday. “It is very disheartening to see the Miccosukee Tribe pay millions of casino dollars to its lawyers and members, all the while discarding the verdict of an American jury. It’s a travesty.”

The Miccosukee Tribe declined to comment on the ruling.

Legally, the three-judge appeals panel concluded that the tribe could not be substituted for the two named defendants in the Bermudez family’s lawsuit. The panel ruled that the tribe could not be held liable for the judgment simply because it paid the bill for the Miccosukee Indians’ defense.

The panel members — Logue, Vance E. Salter and Edwin A. Scales III — found that other Florida cases supported the proposition that the tribe could be held responsible only for legal fees, but not the judgment. They ruled that if the appeals court upheld the Miami trial judge’s decision, it could have “unintended consequences” for personal injury, wrongful death and other civil litigation.

Last year, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick ruled that the Miccosukee Tribe should pay the initial $3.1 million judgment and about $1 million in interest to Bermudez and his teenage son, Mathew, because the tribe had directed the legal strategy and paid for the defense bills of attorneys Guy Lewis and Michael Tein.

At a previous sanctions hearing last year, Dresnick fined Lewis and Tein $50,000 for failing to turn over evidence sought by the Bermudez family’s lawyer, Rodriguez, in his effort to collect the judgment.

All together, the tribe paid Lewis and Tein — who represented several Miccosukee members including former Miccosukee Chairman Billy Cypress on personal tax, DUI and other legal matters — about $11 million between 2005 and 2010.

Under a new Miccosukee leader who took over in 2010, the tribe fired their firm, then sued Lewis, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, and Tein, a one-time federal prosecutor, for alleged malpractice in state court and alleged fraud in federal court.

In the federal case, Lewis and Tein were sued along with the tribe’s fired longtime general counsel, Dexter Lehtinen, also a former U.S. attorney, and the ex-Miccosukee chairman, Billy Cypress, who was accused of stealing $26 million from the tribe.

Both the tribe’s lawsuits were tossed out last year. Lewis, Tein and Lehtinen are now pursuing sanctions against the tribe and its current lawyer, Bernardo Roman III, for filing the federal suit based on what they claim was a lack of evidence.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke is expected to rule on the sanctions motion this summer. That could lead to Lewis and Tein, as well as Lehtinen, collecting more legal fees and possible fines from the Miccosukees. It remains uncertain whether the Bermudez family will ever collect on their judgment.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

  • Friends and Neighbors

    Florida A&M Rattlers alumni gather for big game

    The Florida A&M University South Florida chapters of the university’s National Alumni Association are preparing for a big weekend for the FAMU versus the University of Miami football game. But it’s not all about football for the Rattlers.

  • PolitiFact Florida

    Medical marijuana amendment allows patient to ‘get it forever,’ doctor says

    Opponents have made many arguments against Florida’s proposed medical marijuana amendment, but here’s a new one: They say patients would be able to get an unlimited amount of pot should the measure pass.

  •  
Traffic in the southbound lanes of I-95 was completely blocked Saturday night due to a crash along the busy interstate.

    HIGHWAY CRASH

    I-95 crash, leaves one dead and snarls southbound traffic in Broward

    A horrific crash on I-95 just south of Hallandale Beach Blvd. in Broward County Saturday night has left one dead and forced the closure of all southbound lanes on the busy interstate, according to Mark Wysocky, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesperson.

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