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The families of six teen-agers killed or maimed in a locally infamous 1996 traffic collision in Palm Beach County, Fla., are furious that the imprisoned driver responsible for the tragedy, his father and his attorney have collected a $1 million settlement from Florida Farm Bureau Insurance. All three attorneys central to the case — counsel for the insurance company, the driver and his family and the victim families — agree the furor stems from the families’ frustration at being unable to collect from Florida Farm Bureau the $39.2 million in judgments against the driver, Nicholas Copertino. The $1 million settlement ends a bad-faith countersuit brought by Copertino and his father against Florida Farm Bureau, but is immaterial to a separate bad-faith suit against the insurer by families attempting to collect judgments against Copertino. “In a bad-faith case, the insured and the victims are strange bedfellows,” said Brian Jay Glick, a solo practitioner in Boca Raton, Fla., who represents the families. Copertino, 26, is serving a 15-year prison sentence on charges stemming from the fatal collision. He was 19 years old in February 1996 when — while admittedly driving his Honda Civic jammed with teen-agers at a speed of at least 85 mph in a 50 mph zone — he crossed over into the path of an oncoming car on busy Palmetto Park Road. The impact killed five teen-agers. A sixth teen-ager, the twin sister of one of the dead children, is permanently paralyzed. Five other people suffered injuries that did not leave them permanently disabled. Copertino was insured under a policy held by his father that limited liability payments to $100,000 per claimant, with a $300,000 cap, said Michael Burman of West Palm Beach, Fla.’s Burman, Critton, Luttier & Coleman, who represented Florida Farm Bureau. Within days of the accident, Florida Farm Bureau received three valid and documented claims for damages far exceeding the policy limits. The company quickly paid the three claimants $100,000 each. In June 1996, Florida Farm Bureau filed an action against both Copertino and his father seeking declaratory judgment that, having paid claims to the maximum under the policy, it had no further duty to indemnify Copertino or defend him in the numerous civil actions brought against him. There was no break in Copertino’s representation by counsel provided by Florida Farm Bureau while the company pursued the declaratory judgment, Burman said. The Copertinos, already distraught by their son’s imprisonment, were bewildered that Florida Farm Bureau was both suing them and providing their attorneys in multiple lawsuits brought by victims and estates, said their attorney, Louis Silber of Silber & Valente in West Palm Beach. The Copertino family ignored the suit until Florida Farm Bureau obtained a default judgment, after which they retained a firm, which, in turn, brought Silber into the case. Silber successfully got the default judgment set aside, then countersued for bad faith. Florida Farm Bureau offered the $1 million settlement after they lost a summary judgment in which it was determined the company had not abided by a notification requirement of the state’s Claims Administration Act. Florida Farm Bureau agreed to pay $800,000 in legal costs to Silber and two other firms that represented the Copertino family in civil litigation. Copertino received $50,000 and his father received $150,000. Copertino has exhausted all appeals to shorten his 15-year sentence but was recently granted a habeas corpus writ that could win him a new trial, Silber said. “My client is facing 15 years in prison and you know what criminal lawyers charge,” he said. “You are talking about an accident where there were no drugs or alcohol involved. Everybody’s life is ruined and everybody needs legal representation to get them through the maze of civil and criminal litigation.” The families, who have lost all efforts to get Florida Farm Bureau to pay Copertino’s judgments, will continue their efforts to win a new trial against the insurer, Glick said. “If we get back to the trial level, this helps us,” he said. “How would you like to be on a jury and find out that the girl in the wheelchair and the estates haven’t gotten anything, but the driver got a million bucks from the same insurance company?”

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