A jury awarded almost $8.6 million to the families of two University of Miami doctoral students killed while crossing Kendall Drive on an October evening in 2013.
The verdict, returned Wednesday in the civil trial, placed 95 percent of the blame on the driver, Milady Pequeno of Pinecrest, and 5 percent on the students, Ying Chen and Hao Liu. The judgment calls for the family to receive 95 percent of the settlement, based on the at-fault ratio.
Chen, 27, of Beijing, and Liu, 26, of Harbin, a city in northern China, had just begun their UM doctoral programs in electrical and computer engineering. They were crossing Kendall Drive at Southwest 68th Court in Pinecrest, heading to their off-campus apartments when Pequeno, 47, hit them in her Porsche around 8 p.m. Oct. 16, 2013.
One juror told CBS4, the Miami Herald’s news partner, that the jury concluded Pequeno drove in a “reckless’’ manner and was “not paying attention” to the road. The accident scene was on the east side of South Dixie Highway.
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In her testimony, Pequeno said an SUV blocked her view of the students. Pequeno and her attorney, Richard Adams, declined to speak to Miami Herald news partner CBS4 following the verdict.
One of the attorneys who represented the families said the case was “about personal responsibility, accountability and the dangers of distracted driving,” said Miami attorney Deborah Gander. “We also hope that this verdict will serve as a reminder to all drivers that they must be vigilant, and pay attention when they drive and be mindful of pedestrians crossing the road.”
Kai Zang, a close friend of the families, said they believe the division of blame is fair but are unhappy with the settlement amount.
“It sounds like a big number, but when you cut it in two and take away lawyers’ fees, it’s not enough,” Zang said.
Hao Liu was an only child and had planned to support his parents after completing his degree, Zang said.
“The expectation was much higher. They were top students from a top university,” Zang said. “They were the stars of their community, and now they’re just gone.”
According to the police report, Pequeno told investigators she did not see the pedestrians. Pequeno had two passengers in the car — an elderly woman and young child. Police said there was no suspicion of drug or alcohol involvement.
Collecting the money might be an issue. Pequeno’s insurance only covered $500,000, according to CBS4, citing the plaintiffs’ counsel. A review of Florida Department of State records indicate Pequeno is listed as a registered agent or authorized person for four active companies: Pequeno Oil Company, ETP 1 Co. LLC, X.O. #1 Corp. and My Lady Corp.