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

09/30/2013 9:34 AM

09/30/2013 10:21 PM

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.

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