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.