In one of the largest personal-injury awards in Palm Beach County history, a jury on Friday demanded that Nicholas Copertino pay $ 29.2 million to an 18-year-old and her mother for his role in a West Boca car crash that rendered the teen a quadriplegic.
The award to Maribel Farinas and her mother, Margarita Farinas, could have been even higher had they sought punitive damages, but their attorney told jurors the Farinas did not want to appear bent on exacting revenge for the 1996 disaster in which five teenagers were killed.
The jury of four men and two women returned a verdict in compensatory damages that fell well below the $ 40.7 million sought by the Farinas family, but nearly double the maximum penalty suggested by Copertino’s defense.
“It was good, it was fair,” said Maribel Farinas outside the courtroom, dressed in a black jacket and pants that matched the color of her motorized
“Nothing will bring my friends back, and nothing will make me walk again, but this will make me happier. It will give me a better life.”
Copertino, now 23, lost control of his Honda Civic in February 1996 at 85 mph on Palmetto Park Road with seven teens, ages 13 to 15, crammed in the back seat. The vehicle flew over a median and slammed into an oncoming car, killing five teens and injuring Farinas and another girl. Three women in the other vehicle also were injured.
The same jury ruled last week that Copertino’s driving was reckless. That set the stage for the penalty phase of the civil trial. Jurors will return on Monday to consider damages for the families of four of the teens who were killed, and for the other survivor. That second victim, Emily Slosberg, didn’t suffer injuries as severe as Farinas’, but she lost her twin
sister, Dori, in the crash.
It remains unclear, though, whether Farinas or any crash victims’ relatives will ever see any money because Copertino’s auto insurance company has denied liability and Copertino has no assets. A lawsuit filed against the company, Florida Farm Insurance, by Farinas and survivors is scheduled to come to trial next year.
Copertino is serving a 15-year sentence for five manslaughter convictions related to the crash. Both sides of the case acknowledged in closing arguments the egregious behavior of Copertino in causing the accident. Defense attorney Robert Moses, calling Copertino’s acts foolish and reckless, didn’t even try to elicit sympathy for his client, the clean-cut man who sat somber and quiet in a crisp white Oxford shirt and green slacks.
Instead, the two sides debated how to calculate the monetary value of the pleasures of life that Farinas has been denied. Farinas attorney Gary Sherman reminded jurors that the girl will never walk, swim, dance or hug her mother again, and both sides acknowledged she will be unemployable for her entire life thanks to her spinal injury.
Yet Moses suggested to the jury that while Farinas’ condition is grave and tragic, the teen could improve it herself by obtaining her GED and partaking in therapies intended to make her slightly more capable of simple tasks like brushing her teeth and feeding herself.
“Maribel’s most precious asset was not affected in this disaster: Her brain,” Moses said. “This is a woman who is vibrant. … This is a person who can become involved in life.”
Moses suggested she receive as much as $ 100,000 per year for the rest of her life, estimating she might live another 50 years. Sherman demanded $ 500,000 per year, and suggested she could live as many as 63 years. The jury awarded $ 12 million for that portion, or $ 200,000 per year for 60 years.
The two sides also disputed the cost of Farinas’ future medical costs. Sherman asked for $ 10 million, a middle ground between two estimates offered by witnesses. Moses, arguing that the lower estimate was wildly exaggerated in several places, pleaded for a maximum bill of $ 6 million.
But the jurors ruled Copertino liable to pay $ 11.5 million for future medical expenses.
The two sides had agreed to much of the rest of the judgment before the jury deliberated. They settled on $ 1.5 million in past medical bills, $ 749,000 for what Farinas might have earned in wages through her lifetime and $ 42,000 for wages lost by Margarita Farinas since the crash. Maribel Farinas praised her attorney and said she resented Moses’ courtroom commentary on whether she’s contributed enough to her own rehabilitation.
“He has no idea what I’ve been through,” she said.
The award is among the largest personal-injury judgments in Palm Beach County history, although it doesn’t come close to a $ 79.6 million award a jury gave in January to a 9-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. HMO giant Humana was found liable in that case for cutting off special-care coverage. Further judgments against Copertino for other crash victims and their relatives also are likely to run in the millions.