Parents Win Median Verdict

St. Petersburg Times
Tampa Edition
Saturday March 31, 2001

By Susan Thurston

Times Staff Writer

Awarding $10.6-million, a jury agrees that landscaping contributed to the death of one child and severe injuries of another in a car crash.

TAMPA - Three years after a drunken driver was imprisoned for killing an 11-year-old girl and disabling her sister, a jury Friday said trees and bushes along a road were more to blame.

The Hillsborough civil jury said a developer and a community association must pay the girls' parents $10.6-million because the landscaping in a median near the Hunter's Green neighborhood was improperly planted and contributed to the 1997 crash.

The money is to cover the medical costs of Tom and Debra Jackson's surviving daughter, Elizabeth, and to compensate them for the loss of their daughter Katherine.

The verdict came 12 hours after jurors began deliberations in the three-week trial over landscaping in the median of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Debra Jackson cried as the clerk read the jury's findings.

"They have honored our children and honored their lives," she said afterward. "Six totally objective people have exonerated me of any blame."

Her husband, a columnist for a Tampa Tribune edition in Pasco County, said the ruling brought relief, but can't erase the pain. He looked forward to going home and hugging Elizabeth, who can't walk or talk.

"Closure has become a word without real meaning to us," Tom Jackson said. "It may put an official end to what we've lived for the last four years...but there's still a bedroom that will never be filled with Katie."

The Jacksons' oldest daughter, Katherine, dies in the Feb. 6, 1997, crash at the entrance of Hunter's Green, where they still live. Then 7-year-old Elizabeth was permanently brain damaged.

Debra Jackson testified during the trial that she never saw Harold Vann driving toward her in his pickup as she turned into the subdivision about 7 p.m. Instead, she saw trees and bushes.

Although a jury convicted Vann of DUI-manslaughter and DUI with serious bodily injury during his criminal trial in 1998, the Jacksons have argued that he was not the only one at fault. The developer planted the trees and shrubs incorrectly, they said, creating a wall of foliage that blocked Debra Jackson from seeing Vann, who is serving up to 16 years in prison.

The defense in the civil trial said Vann caused the wreck, not the landscaping in the median. Had it been a safety problem, people in the 2,000-home community would have complained, attorneys said.

But the jury decided that the developer, Markborough Development Co., was 45 percent at fault for the accident, and the Hunter's Green Community Association, which maintained the shrubbery, was 10 percent to blame. Vann was assigned 45 percent of the blame.

Defense attorneys said they would consider an appeal. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ralph Steinberg also could move to reduce the amount.

"It's always been a tragedy from the get-go," said attorney Joel Adler, whose Miami-based firm represented both defendants. "We knew the emotional factor would be very tough for the jury to put aside."

The jury awarded the Jacksons $14-million in damages over the death of Katherine and injuries to Elizabeth, but the amount was reduced to about $7.7-million because Vann shared almost half of the blame. Vann was an original defendant in the civil suit filed two days after his conviction, but his insurance company settled for an undisclosed amount.

Jurors also said the Jacksons were entitled to about $533,000 for past medical costs and $2.3-million for future costs. They said Elizabeth's lost earnings amounted to about $25,000 in today's value.

Henry Valenzuela, the Jacksons' attorney, said the verdict was "pretty amazing" given that Vann had already been found guilty. "We weren't given much of a chance to win this case," said Valenzuela, who took the case on contingency after other lawyers rejected it.

What convinced the jury were statements from the landscaping architect who testified the developer did not plant the landscaping according to his county-approved plans, he said. Some of the trees and bushes were removed after the accident.

The three-man, three-woman jury spent about eight hours Thursday and four hours Friday deliberating. They asked several questions about exhibits and legal definitions. The Jacksons would have considered settling during the trial, Valenzuela said, but they did not get an adequate offer.

The verdict will allow the Jacksons to continue caring for Elizabeth at home, they said. Debra Jackson cares for her before and after Elizabeth goes to school and in the evening. A nurse takes over during the night.

Valenzuela said it also sends a clear message to some people in the community who "maligned" and "shunned" Debra Jackson because they thought she caused the accident.

Although Elizabeth functions like an infant, her parents have not ruled out hope that her condition will improve. They say she has become more alert since attending Hunter's Green Elementary School, and, generally, is in good physical condition.

The Jacksons said during the trial that Elizabeth could live well into adulthood, possibly even into her 50s. The jury, however, estimated she would live another 20 or so years, based on the testimony of medical experts.

The Jacksons, who had a third child after the accident, hope the money will help them take advantage of medical breakthroughs. Doctors have told them Elizabeth could be a prime candidate for new brain injury treatments because she was so young and bright at the time of the accident.

For now, however, the Jacksons want to move on with their lives, taking one step at a time.

"The plan is let's get home and hold Elizabeth," Tom Jackson said.