Joel Roth, left, and Sagi Shaked, right, of Shaked Law Firm.
Joel Roth, left, and Sagi Shaked, right, of Shaked Law Firm. (Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM)

Roitiki Tyler only got to see her star athlete son play one college football game.

Tyler and her 11-year-old flew from Florida to Iowa to watch Devontre’a Tyler play middle linebacker in a Saturday game in November 2014. The next night, they were driving home to Arcadia from the airport when a Ford F-150 truck hit them head-on at 65 mph.

The mother of two died. Her young son survived without physical injuries, but the emotional pain inflicted on him and his older brother led an Orange County jury to award them $12.2 million earlier this month.

“She was super close to her children,” said plaintiffs attorney Sagi Shaked of the Shaked Law Firm in Aventura.

The Ford driver, Joshua Loren Bell, admitted liability for the crash. He had been driving on the wrong side of the two-lane road trying to pass three cars, believing the two lanes went in the same direction, Shaked said.

“He was looking at his radio, changing radio stations, and then slammed head-on into the plaintiff’s vehicle,” the attorney said.

But plaintiffs counsel believed Bell wasn’t the only liable party. The driver was making the three-hour journey to Arcadia from his home in DeBary to work as a project manager for the construction company Gibbs & Register Inc., which should put the company on the hook for damages, Shaked and his colleague Joel Roth argued in a pretrial motion.

Gibbs & Register argued Bell’s work didn’t start until Monday morning and that therefore he was not in the course and scope of his employment during the Sunday-night drive. Plaintiffs counsel disagreed: The company was paying for Bell’s hotel that night and had accepted Bell’s workers compensation claim for his own injuries, the attorneys argued.

Orange Circuit Judge Janet Thorpe granted summary judgment finding Gibbs & Register liable, making non-economic damages the only thing left to determine at trial. Though Tyler was a working mom — she had a job at the Publix deli, Shaked said — her family’s attorneys withdrew an economic loss claim before trial to focus on the emotional losses of her children.

The plaintiffs asked the jury to award $21 million, calling as witnesses Tyler’s sister, her older son, her younger son’s father, her pastor, a therapist and a grief expert.

“It really destroyed the older son, the fact that he was so close with his mom,” Shaked said. “The younger son refuses to talk about it. There was testimony about the seven stages of grief, and the younger son, while he knows his mom is dead, I don’t think he accepts it. He’s still a little kid.”

The defense argued the boy, now 13, had behavioral issues in school even before the crash and that his grades had actually improved since 2014. The attorneys also argued the teen’s remaining parent was providing a great deal of support.

“They were complimenting Dad throughout the trial … and he was doing an amazing job, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need your mom,” Shaked said.

Gibbs & Register was represented by Daniel Shapiro and Elizabeth Tosh of Cole, Scott & Kissane in Tampa. Bell was represented by Charles McKeon of the Law Offices of Charles E. McKeon in Tampa. The defense attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.

The jury’s $12.24 million award included $4.54 million for the younger son’s past and future emotional distress over the crash; $4.2 million for the loss of his mother’s companionship, instruction and guidance; and $3.5 million for Devontre’a Tyler’s loss. Shaked said an insurance policy for the company can cover the entire amount.

Shaked said he believed the jury grasped the emotional impact of losing a parent and knew a child’s report card couldn’t paint the whole picture.

“I think the defense just didn’t understand the human aspect of it,” he said. “These are human beings that lost their mother. The fact that they could never, ever have a conversation with Mom or get a hug from Mom or have a cup of coffee with Mom, I think that was huge.”

Case: Devontre’a Tyler et al v. Gibbs & Register et al

Case No.: 2014-CA-013239

Description: Wrongful death

Filing date: Dec. 29, 2014

Verdict date: May 4, 2017

Judge: Orange Circuit Judge Janet Thorpe

Plaintiffs attorneys: Sagi Shaked and Joel Roth, Shaked Law Firm, Aventura

Defense attorneys: Daniel Shapiro and Elizabeth Tosh, Cole, Scott & Kissane, Tampa; Charles McKeon, Law Offices of Charles E. McKeon, Tampa

Verdict amount: $12.24 million