Brazilian former race car driver Wilson Fittipaldi Jr. might make a pit stop in Miami jail after dodging a $7 million civil judgment against him and swerving around opposing counsel’s efforts to serve him with court documents—including by Facebook Messenger.
U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro issued a warrant for Fittipaldi’s arrest Wednesday after her October decision to fine Fittipaldi $100 a day for contempt of court did not motivate the 73-year-old Sao Paulo resident to appear in her Miami courtroom. Fittipaldi was a Formula One racer in the 1970s, and his younger brother Emerson and son Christian were also prominent race car drivers.
She ordered police to hold Fittipaldi in custody until he purges himself of contempt in the civil case, which stems from a decadeold business deal to finish a partially built 110-foot yacht. Jailing defendants in civil cases is a move judges make rarely.
The unusual situation, in which a defendant has avoided responding to court orders while serving as a celebrity product spokesman and posting daily on social media, has also forced plaintiffs attorneys to take unconventional steps — such as serving him with court documents over Facebook.
“It’s a little bit out of the ordinary,” said Coral Gables attorney Clay Naughton of Moore & Co., who represents plaintiff Casino Royale LLC. “Usually, courts don’t recognize social media as a valid form of communication.”
Fittipaldi hired lawyers and filed an appearance early on in the case, which was filed in 2013.
“After losing a motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds, the lawyers withdrew and he went underground, presumably because he thought that he was judgment-proof in Brazil,” Naughton said.
In September 2015, Ungaro entered a $6.97 million default judgment against Fittipaldi. After he didn’t comply with an order to fill out a fact information sheet, the judge ordered him to appear in Miami court or be held in contempt. Plaintiffs lawyers tried to serve Fittipaldi with the order at his Brazilian work address, at Key Biscayne residences attached to him and then, as a last resort, via Facebook messenger.
The social media site showed Fittipaldi had seen the message — but he skipped the July 2016 court date.
Naughton said Facebook’s “seen” stamp showed actual notice, which gave the judge an extra level of confidence that she could hold Fittipaldi in contempt. Now that the plaintiffs have pushed for and been granted further sanctions, the question is: Will Fittipaldi show?
The former racer does seem to visit Florida often, Naughton said. His more famous brother, two-time Formula One World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi, lives in Key Biscayne, and his son Christian owns property in Miami, the plaintiffs lawyer said. The next time Wilson Fittipaldi flies in, he could be arrested at the airport.
In the meantime, contempt fines and post-judgment interest are piling up every day.
A request for comment from Fittipaldi — sent via Facebook message — was not returned.