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Jorge Cabrera Jr. went to his sixth-grade teacher, Javier Olmedo, on Oct. 12, 1998, and said he wanted to talk about his mother. The 12-year-old boy said something had happened and seemed upset, according to a deposition of Olmedo, who told the boy to return the next day to discuss it. But Olmedo never found out what was troubling the boy because Jorge — or Jorgie as his family called him — never returned to Rockway Middle School. That night, Jorgie got into a fight with his mother, Martha Serrano, over homework, and left the house. The next morning, the boy was found slumped beneath a Southwest Miami-Dade, Fla., bus shelter. His left shin rested on an electrical conduit that powered the shelter, operated by Eller Media, a unit of San Antonio-based Clear Channel formerly based in Arizona. There was a burn on the boy’s shin, and a burn on his right tennis shoe. He had been electrocuted. Television news crews swarmed the bus station, and the boy’s death outraged the community. The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office joined the outcries, pressing manslaughter charges against Eller Media and its electricians for recklessly negligent practices. In 2001, a jury acquitted the company of all charges. But another fight, this one in the civil courts, would be waged. The road for the plaintiffs was tough, as Eller Media mounted an aggressive defense. The company relied primarily on a scientifically complex theory that a side flash of lightning killed the boy, but it also presented the jury with testimony and evidence about the family itself. While the defense was allowed to discuss the sometimes troubled relationship between Jorgie and his father, the more shocking behavior of his mother was deemed irrelevant. For the defense, the inclusion of any evidence that diminished the father-son relationship could prove vital, since juries are allowed to consider it in determining pain and suffering. Under Florida case law, the nature of a parent-child relationship can be taken into consideration in determining awards. Despite inclusion of that evidence, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court jury last month awarded $65.1 million in damages, including $61 million in punitive damages, to Jorgie’s father Jorge Cabrera Sr. against the outdoor advertising company, which was purchased in 1996 by Clear Channel Outdoor. The verdict came after a fiercely lawyered nine-week trial. Jorgie’s parents, who filed the action jointly, alleged that Eller failed to properly install a transformer and a safety system in the shelter at Coral Way and Southwest 108th Court. According to their suit, the company was reckless and negligent in using unlicensed and unqualified electricians, which it did to cut costs. Both Cabrera, and Jorgie’s mother, Martha Serrano — who were divorced long before their son’s death — sued the company for wrongful death soon after the fatal incident. Serrano hired Miami attorney Alan Goldfarb of Goldfarb & Gold, while Cabrera retained Ervin Gonzalez and Roberto Martinez of Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables, Fla. The lead trial attorney for Eller Media was Ronald Cabaniss of Cabaniss Smith Toole Wiggins in Maitland, Fla. Cabaniss did not return a call for comment before deadline. Serrano settled at the mediation phase of the trial for an undisclosed amount, leaving her ex-husband to take on the advertising giant’s legal team of eight lawyers alone. The defense group included Deborah Chang, a Connecticut attorney for the company’s insurer, AIG, who moved to Miami solely to work on the case. As the case moved slowly toward trial before Judge Jennifer Bailey, Eller Media began its quest to prove that lightning, not an electrical shock from the bus shelter, killed the young boy. According to trial testimony, the company spent at least $750,000 on experts to bolster this claim. But the company’s lawyers simultaneously launched another attack, digging into the tumultuous life of young Jorgie Cabrera. During the trial, jurors saw the videotaped image of Jorgie, bright-eyed and clowning for the camera. “You know me, Jorge Cabrera,” the boy said to the camera. “When I wake up in the morning, what I like to drink is a good glass of Folgers. Ahhh. As you can see now, we’re going to go outside and look at my go-cart. Come on. Uh? Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me?” But the bright child in the film had a dark family past, which the defense tried to use in its favor. Eller’s lawyers sought to show that Jorge Sr. had little involvement in his son’s life, and therefore was not entitled to a large award. When Jorge Cabrera was 21, he met the slightly older Serrano though her brother, Hugo Rodriguez. The two began a relationship and Serrano became pregnant with Jorgie. But the relationship soon soured. In depositions, Cabrera admitted to drinking and perhaps not being mature enough for marriage. The couple divorced when Jorgie was 2 years old. Until Jorgie was about 4, Cabrera admitted, he had virtually no contact with his son and did not make regular child support payments. At that point, Cabrera began what the defense characterized as a “casual” relationship with the boy. In the meantime, the life of Jorge Sr. and his ex-wife took divergent paths. Cabrera remarried and began working at Antillean Marine Shipping Corp. in Miami, rising to main yard supervisor. In contrast, Serrano struggled with relationships, violent tendencies and depression, according to court records. Her troubles included an incident in which she overdosed on drugs, then erratically drove Jorge and his brother in her car. In pretrial motions, Eller Media tried to introduce evidence of the mother’s life, including a suicide attempt and subsequent institutionalization for severe depression. The goal was to show that Cabrera was not there for his son. The defense noted that in a time of trouble, Jorgie had decided to confide in his teacher, rather than his father, about problems with his mother. “Throughout Jorge’s life, Martha Serrano loved her son and did the best she could through difficult circumstances, with no help or assistance from [Cabrera] when she and Jorge needed it most,” Eller Media contended in a motion to include evidence of Jorge’s troubled home life. Eller Media relied on Collins v. Florida Towing Co., a 1972 case from Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal, in arguing to introduce evidence of Jorge’s home life. The 1st DCA held that a lower court had acted correctly in a wrongful death case when it allowed evidence that a father, who was the plaintiff, had abandoned his wife and son. Judge Bailey agreed to allow selected evidence of the boy’s relationship with Cabrera, but excluded most of the evidence regarding Serrano’s troubles. The plaintiffs attorneys had sought to minimize the jury’s exposure to the Serrano-Cabrera family problems, while the defense had tried to include as much of it as possible in the trial. The jury never saw any of the evidence concerning Serrano, Cabrera’s co-counsel, Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, said in an interview. “It wasn’t relevant.” In closing arguments, Martinez’s colleague, Ervin Gonzalez, dealt with the allegations that Cabrera and Jorgie had a less than ideal relationship. “He’s got his regrets,” Gonzalez told the jury. “He’s got to live with regrets all the rest of his life because of the marriage problems he had with Ms. Serrano. It affected his relationship with his son early on”" But Gonzalez contended that father and son had grown closer in recent years. Martinez characterized the defense as aggressive, “throwing in the kitchen sink.” At times, the motions bordered on the absurd. During the course of the litigation, Eller Media was merging with Clear Channel, a national media giant. The defense argued against mentioning the link to the major company in court, claiming that the association with Clear Channel could prejudice the jury against the defendant. In an April pretrial motion, the defense contended that Clear Channel had a “bad reputation” due to disciplinary action taken against the company by the Federal Communications Commission for the antics of radio shock jocks Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge, as well as allegations that it drove up ticket costs for rock concerts. Judge Bailey dismissed the motion. A more challenging issue for the plaintiff side was Eller Media’s attempt to have any jury award be assessed solely against Florida-based Eller rather than from the national parent company. That would make a difference between an $80 million pot and a $458 million one, according to Martinez. Prior to the trial, Judge Bailey ruled that discussion of damages should be limited to Eller Media’s profits at the state level. But during the trial, the plaintiff team tried again, and convinced the judge that the national company’s profits should be considered as well. In an interview, Gonzalez said the scope of the negligence was the reason why it was appropriate to consider Clear Channel’s profits. “It was a national division and the problems with supervision came all the way from Arizona,” he said. “They didn’t have checks and balances. The bottom line was no one was checking to see who was doing electrical work.” The plaintiffs attorneys were able to show that an unlicensed electrician, Victor Garcia, was responsible for the faulty wiring, and that Garcia’s supervisor did nothing to supervise him. While the defense relied heavily on paid scientific experts, the plaintiff’s key witnesses were credible locals from the public sector — a medical examiner, police detectives and citizen witnesses. “In the real world, things aren’t usually black and white,” Martinez said. “But in this case it was pretty clear that they just didn’t care.” Martinez and Gonzalez say the fight was about vindicating a father who wanted to see justice for his son’s untimely death. Martinez said that throughout the case, Cabrera insisted on using the criminal term “guilty” to describe the verdict he wanted. The lawyers say Cabrera’s desire to take the case before a jury is what propelled them to spend countless hours and over $1 million in costs to go to trial, even after Serrano settled and the aggressive pretrial tactics began. “Mr. Cabrera said, ‘The money will not bring my boy back. I want the jury to find this company guilty and that they are the reason my boy is dead,’ ” Martinez said. “ My personal goal was to make sure that boy’s voice could be heard in the courtroom.” Eller Media has filed post-trial motions to set aside the verdict, as well as motions to interview the jurors. But Gonzalez said he is unfazed by the prospect of another round of legal combat. “I expect an appeal,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

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