Jury Awards $17 Million in Fatal Crash

The Tampa Tribune
Saturday, March 31, 2001

TAMPA - A Hillsborough County jury awards millions in a 1997 car crash that killed one young girl and injured her sister.

By Gary Sprott Of The Tampa Tribune

Debra and Tom Jackson couldn't explain it.

For the past few days, their 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth - a once precocious and bubbly little girl now held prisoner by her damaged brain - has been smiling constantly.

Embroiled in a civil trial over the wreck that injured Elizabeth and killed her sister Katie, the Jacksons hoped the smiles greeting them each night on their return from court were good omens.

And so it proved Friday, as a Hillsborough County jury awarded almost $17 million to the family, finding that the developer of Hunter's green and the subdivision's community association shared blame for the accident.

After 12 hours of deliberations over two days, the six jurors found the defendants improperly designed and maintained landscaping in a median outside the northeast Hillsborough subdivision.

Trees and shrubbery blocked Debra Jackson?s view as she tried to turn into Hunter's Green on Feb. 6, 1997, from Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, the jury found. Jackson, who was returning home with her daughters, said she never saw the oncoming pickup truck until it was too late.

Katie died instantly in the collision; Elizabeth barely clung to life.

"They've honored our children," Debra Jackson said minutes after the verdict, seated beside her husband on a courtroom bench. "They've honored their lives."

"We continue to lurch forward day after day," said Tom Jackson, a Tampa Tribune columnist. "There's a bedroom that will never be filled by Katie Jackson."

The jury found Markborough Development was 45 percent negligent and Hunter's Green Community Association was 10 percent negligent for the wreck.

The panel apportioned the remaining 45 percent of blame to Harold Vann, who was driving his pickup drunk that night and now is serving a 16 ½ -year prison sentence in the accident.

Because the Jacksons previously settled their claim against Vann for an undisclosed amount, Friday's jury award will be reduced to about $10.6 million. That will be divided between Markborough and Hunter's Green.

Defense attorneys said their clients will consider appealing.

The defense case focused on several issues: The county approved the landscaping; no one ever complained about obstructed views at the heavily traveled intersection; and there have been no other wrecks there.

Vann, who witnesses said tried to beat a red light, was solely to blame for the collision, the defendants argued.

"Obviously, we disagree with (the jurors), but we respect their decision," said defense attorney Joel Adler. "This case has always been a tragedy "and we always knew it was going to be difficult for them to put the emotions aside."

In testimony frequently interrupted by her tears, Debra Jackson had described her girls as "like twins born four years apart."

Wherever "Katie Bug" went, so went Elizabeth. Both girls were gifted students and shared a love of song and dance.

Jurors cried as they watched home videos of Katie and Elizabeth, ghostly compilations of images from birthdays, holidays and school performances.

The Jacksons' attorney said the landscaping was changed after the county OK'd the original design. Trees and shrubs with fuller foliage were planted in violation of county and state guidelines, and later would block the view of both Debra Jackson and Vann, said Tampa lawyer Henry Valenzuela.

"They switched the trees to make the area look better and created a safety defect," said Valenzuela, who had asked jurors to apportion one-third of the blame each to Markborough, Hunter's Green and Vann.

Since the wreck, the landscaping has been modified.

Valenzuela said the Jacksons still may get the total award of $16.86 million based on an unrelated case pending before the Florida supreme Court. The high court is considering whether someone who commits an intentional act, such as driving drunk, can also be considered to have acted negligently.

Valenzuela contends Vann's acts were intentional. Therefore, he shouldn't be apportioned any shared of blame in the Jackson lawsuit, which alleged negligence.

Jurors found Debra Jackson shared no blame for the wreck, a fact seized upon immediately by Valenzuela, who leaned toward his client and repeatedly told her, "You're zero negligent."

Debra Jackson cried as that portion of the verdict was read.

"She never saw (Vann) and we proved that," Valenzuela said. "She was maligned for four years and accused of causing the accident that killed her daughter and maimed her other daughter."

Elizabeth can no longer walk or talk and must be fed through a tube. Her parents, who also have a 2-yea-old son, care for her.

"She has, since last July, been making neurological improvements," said Debra Jackson. "They may be minuscule, but they are improvements."