Jeanmarie Whalen, attorney w/Slawson Cunningham Whalen & Gaspari, Palm Beach Gardens (Melanie Bell)
Case: John Gelland and Jo-Ann Gelland v. Christine Bill
Case no: 502013CA000871XXXXMB
Filing date: Jan. 15, 2013
Trial dates: Feb. 8-12, 2014
Judge: Palm Beach Circuit Judge Meenu Sasser
Plaintiffs attorneys: Jeanmarie Whalen and Fred Cunningham, Slawson Cunningham Whalen & Gaspari, Palm Beach Gardens
Defense attorneys: Cymonie Rowe, Boca Raton, and Rey Redlich, Miami, Liberty Mutual Insurance
Jury award: $3 million
Details: John Gelland, then 60, had recently retired as a safety specialist with Exxon Mobil in Houston. While he was waiting for his retirement home to be built in Jupiter, he was renting nearby and getting acquainted with the town by cycling, a favorite past-time.
Gelland was northbound on State Road A1A when a car door opened suddenly in front of him in the bike lane on Jan. 12, 2012. He collided with the door and was thrown 20 feet onto the pavement.
Gelland suffered five fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, right arm fractures and nerve damage to his dominant right arm and hand. He continues to have pain and limited range of motion in his right arm.
He sued the driver, Christine Bill, for negligence. Gelland’s wife sued for loss of consortium.
There was a pretrial settlement offer from Liberty Mutual, Bill’s insurer, of $910,000.
Plaintiffs case: Gelland was portrayed to the jury as a fastidiously cautious man. He wore a helmet and other safety gear while cycling. He chose the route he would cycle because it had bike lanes, and he chose the time of day—midmorning—because there was less traffic.
A Florida traffic law requires drivers who parallel park next to a bike lane to make sure they have a clear path before opening their door.
Gelland had ridden the same route about 75 times.
Testimony came from Jupiter police traffic investigator Demetrius Fauntleroy and Neil Freeman, an accident reconstruction expert from Miami. Both found Bill to blame.
Dr. Craig Lichtblau of North Palm Beach, Gelland’s treating physiatrist, discussed Gelland’s life care plan.
“Lichtblau said Gelland would require for the remainder of his life a series of things—physical therapy, pain management, medications and continued care by a neurologist, orthopedist and physiatrist, and he would need future shoulder surgery,” lead plaintiff attorney Jeanmarie Whalen said.
Defense case: Bill’s lead attorney, Cymonie Rowe, did not comment.
Whalen said the defense tried to bring in the Florida Department of Transportation and Palm Beach County as Fabre defendants on grounds that the road was improperly and hazardously designed.
The defense accident reconstruction witness, James Ipser of the University of Florida, was the subject of a Daubert hearing. He was not able to establish expertise on road design, and Judge Meenu Sasser rejected the Fabre defendants before trial.
In a deposition, Bill insisted she looked in her rear-view mirror before opening the door. At trial, she also said she looked over her shoulder. This testimony was impeached because she hadn’t said it before.
Bill claimed that when she looked back, a group of people was standing in the bike lane and obstructed her view of Gelland.
Whalen noted no other witnesses corroborated Bill’s version.
Ipser conceded his version of events was dependent on Bill’s account.
The medical defense expert, Boynton Beach orthopedist Joseph Schalal, disputed the need for and extent of future care.
Outcome: The jury found Bill negligently caused Gelland’s injuries and awarded him more than $3 million in damages. His wife was awarded $524,999 for loss of consortium.
However, the jury also found Gelland 16 percent liable. This reduced the $3.58 million award to $3 million. Whalen had no explanation for the jury’s assessment of comparative fault.
Comments: “The jury understood Jo-Ann had suffered along with her husband. They moved here three months prior to the collision to live their dream retirement. They were building a house on a golf course. He was going to golf, swim and cycle. Now he can’t do any of those things,” Whalen said.
Post-verdict: Bill joined in a motion by the Gellands to add a second insurer, Peerless Insurance Co., to the final judgment. Bill also is seeking a new trial.