A Miami-Dade judge gave back almost $5 million to the Miccosukee Tribe on Wednesday, money he had previously ordered paid toward a longstanding judgment owed to the family of a woman killed by a tribal member in a head-on collision.
Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick approved returning the money after a state appeals court ruled that he made a legal error last year. He had ordered the West Miami-Dade tribe to pay the 2009 judgment instead of the actual defendants, the driver and her father, who owned the uninsured car that killed the woman.
Authorities determined that the driver, Tammy Gwen Billie, had drugs in her system when she rammed into another car on the Tamiami Trail in 1998, killing 30-year-old mother Liliana Bermudez.
At Wednesday's brief hearing, tribal lawyer Daniel Davis argued that the judge “cannot delay” returning the money to the Miccosukees.
But the judge snapped at the Bermudez family's lawyer, who sought to delay the transfer of money from the Miami-Dade court registry to the tribe until the Florida Supreme Court heard his final appeal.
“Don't give me a brief history of your case ... because you're going to have difficulty finding the tribe's assets,” Dresnick told attorney Ramon M. Rodriguez. “That's the most ridiculous argument I've ever heard.”
The crash victim's husband, Carlos Bermudez, and teenage son, Mathew, have struggled to collect on the 2009 judgment. The driver, Billie, and her father, Jimmie Bert, say they're broke after borrowing millions of dollars from the tribe to pay their legal defense fees.
“I’m devastated,” Bermudez, a Miami truck driver, told the Miami Herald after Wednesday’s hearing. “Where is the justice? … I was counting on this money to send my son to college. I don’t have a Plan B.”
The tribe fronted almost $3 million in legal payments to Miami lawyers Guy Lewis and Michael Tein in a trial where the defendants admitted liability at the outset.
Last year, Dresnick ordered the Miccosukees to pay the original $3.1 million judgment, with interest, after concluding the tribe had directed the legal strategy and paid for the defense bills.
In July, a 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.
“[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,” the appeals panel wrote. “No law, however, supports Bermudez's claim” to have the tribe pay the judgment.
After Dresnick agreed to return the nearly $5 million judgment to the Miccosukees on Wednesday, the tribe’s lawyers sought to recover the roughly $72,000 premium that they had paid on a bond posted with the court last year. The tribe wants the Bermudez family to reimburse the Miccosukees for that cost, according to a court filing.