A Miami attorney who won a $37 million jury verdict hopes an argument he made will help the plaintiffs bar fight for higher damages in injury cases.
Leesfield Scolaro partner Justin Shapiro knew he wanted to seek punitive damages against a driver who hit a teenage skateboarder and fled. The lawsuit was undefended and the driver was uninsured, so the boy’s family won’t receive the money a Miami-Dade jury awarded them Tuesday. But punitive damages are meant to prevent other drivers from causing similar tragedies.
Shapiro faced a challenge, though: He didn’t have case law to support his motion.
Punitive damages are reserved for cases involving intentional misconduct or gross negligence, which Shapiro believed were evident in the driver’s decision to leave the scene where the teen died. But typically, reckless behavior warranting punitive damages happen before an injury.
“The two that you see all the time are drunk driving and intentional battery — if you slug someone in the jaw and break their jaw, of course punitive damages are warranted,” Shapiro said. “But aside from those two instances in personal injury law, there are not many clear-cut examples.”
In this case, defendant Gabriel Fleuricourt’s decision to flee happened after he hit 16-year-old Cash Pereira on the one-lane 12th Avenue near Northwest 108th Terrace in Miami. Fleuricourt confessed the 2015 hit-and-run to police, according to NBC 6 Miami. A criminal court judge found him incompetent to stand trial.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola initially denied Shapiro’s motion for punitive damages as premature. The attorney needed to link Cash’s death to Fleuricourt’s failure to stop and help.
The judge wanted more support for the proposition that leaving the scene caused or contributed to the death, because there was no case law saying that leaving the scene in fact warrants punitive damages as a matter of law, Shapiro said.
Shapiro’s new motion argued a lack of timely medical treatment was the link between Fleuricourt fleeing and the teen’s death.
According to testimony from a police detective, at least 10 minutes elapsed between the nighttime crash and the arrival of first responders. The detective told the court that in his experience, those minutes were crucial and might have saved Cash’s life. Instead, he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Scola was subbing for Judge John Schlesinger, who granted the new motion and sent the question of punitive damages to the jury. With a default liability judgment against Fleuricourt in hand, jurors awarded $37 million to the Pereira family, including $27.7 million in punitive damages.
“The idea here is that lawyers can use this order that I obtained from Schlesinger as persuasive with other judges that this is something that should be allowed,” Shapiro said.
He said he was proud to help the Pereira family, who pursued the civil case to obtain some measure of justice and closure after the death of their youngest child.
“This has just destroyed them,” he said. “They pray for him every night. They light candles and cut cakes and have pictures around their table during his birthday. They visit his gravesite regularly. It’s just as awful as anyone could possibly try to imagine, a 16-year-old boy with excellent high school grades headed for college.”
A request for comment made through Fleuricourt’s criminal defense attorney was not returned.