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Jury demands Belniak pay millions in fatal Christmas 2007 crash case

By Erin Sullivan, Times Staff Writer

Tampa Bay Times In Print: Wednesday, June 13, 2012

NEW PORT RICHEY — David Belniak was the only one at fault in a Christmas 2007 crash that killed three people and should pay millions to family members of the people who died, a jury decided Tuesday night.

The jury of four women and two men awarded $4.5 million each to three sisters whose parents were killed in the crash.

The criminal case against Belniak, 38, was resolved in August when he pleaded guilty to three counts of DUI manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The family members of the victims sued him in civil court to recover damages. The trial began last week.

Belniak's sister, attorney Debra Tuomey, filed a countersuit, saying her brother is not guilty and blaming the crash on one of the victims.

She said the victims' estates should pay Belniak for his pain, suffering, mental anguish and medical bills. He suffered minor injuries and was released from the hospital the day after the crash. On Monday, Belniak showed his permanent injury to the jury: a scar on his left elbow.

The countersuit drew international headlines and struck the lawyers of the victims' family as appallingly insensitive.

"We have the worst kind of villain here and he really doesn't care," attorney Steven Meyer said in his closing argument for one of the victims' estates. "He takes no responsibility. And by countersuing, he aggravated an already intolerable situation."

The damages awarded to the victims' estates Tuesday were compensatory, meaning they are meant to compensate for medical bills, funerals, pain and suffering. The parties will gather in the courthouse again today for the second part of the process, where jurors will decide what punitive damages Belniak owes the victims' estates. This is money intended to punish the defendant for grossly negligent behavior.

Even though relatives are pleased with the verdict, attorney Maureen Deskins said "it was never about money."

"They just wanted someone to tell them that what David Belniak did to them was wrong," said Deskins.

The jury's verdict awards $4.5 million each to Melanie Bassi, 34, Jennifer Calabrese, 32, and Michelle Bassi, 28, for the loss of their parents. Gerard Bassi, 51, and Denise Bassi, 50, had been visiting from their home in Connecticut when they were killed.

"I'm glad it is over," Melanie Bassi said after the verdict Tuesday night.

The sisters' grandmother, Linda McWilliams, 66, also was killed in the crash. Her husband, Ray McWilliams, was injured but survived. Relatives said he never fully recovered and died last year at 68.

The jury also awarded nearly $700,000 to the McWilliams' estate. Witnesses to the crash said Ray McWilliams, who was driving, was at a standstill in his Chevrolet Tahoe waiting at a red light on U.S. 19 at Little Road in Hudson when he was hit by a speeding pickup driven by Belniak.

Crash reconstruction experts also said the Tahoe was stopped. One expert estimated Belniak's speed at 86 mph when his truck hit the Tahoe. Another said he was going 53 mph. The force sent the Tahoe from "zero to 40" mph, an expert testified.

Belniak, whom authorities said had alcohol, Xanax and cocaine metabolites in his system at the time of the crash, testified Friday that McWilliams pulled out in front of him. "It was unavoidable," Belniak testified. "There was absolutely nothing I could have done to avoid it."

Deskins said Belniak absolutely could have avoided it.

"How about not getting behind the wheel of that car in an impaired state?" Deskins said in her closing argument. "Is that something he could have done differently that day?"

Jeff Adams, an attorney representing Belniak, told the jury their decision was "not about whether you like my client or not."

He asked jurors not to rely on eyewitness testimony, saying the witnesses differed on the facts of the day — such as what lane the witnesses were in, what color their traffic lights were. Their details were "clear as mud," Adams said.

Some witnesses testified they saw Belniak driving erratically miles before the fatal intersection — careering onto curbs, sidewalks and into oncoming traffic. Last week, jurors heard 911 calls of people asking for someone to stop Belniak's pickup before he hurt someone.

Adams discounted that testimony because witnesses who saw the crash said Belniak wasn't swerving as he approached the intersection. "Straight as an arrow," Adams said.

However, Deskins said the witnesses didn't differ on the things that matter.

"What did they all say?" Deskins said. "The light was red. The Tahoe was stopped. David Belniak never touched his brakes, never took any evasive action. And that Tahoe never changed lanes."

The jurors were not asked to determine if Belniak was at fault because he admitted fault by pleading guilty to the criminal charges. But jurors were asked if McWilliams was also at fault in the crash. They determined he was not.

[Last modified: Jun 12, 2012 11:15 PM]

The specter of the 2000 presidential election nightmare hung over a Palm Beach County courtroom Thursday.

However, in this case, instead of George Bush, the victor was Bailey Conaway. And instead of gaining the right to be the leader of the free world, Conaway won the right to lead the deeply divided 2,400-home Lake Charleston community in western Boynton Beach.

"Truth prevailed," said David Midolo, a county firefighter who also was swept back onto the community's board of directors when Circuit Judge Thomas Barkdull refused to allow votes to be counted that opponents claimed would have swung the outcome the other way.

Conaway, Midolo and another board member, Jane Early, got their seats back with the help of attorney Steven Meyer. Four years ago, Meyer was the opposite side of a similar — albeit more far-reaching — battle as part of the legal team representing failed presidential candidate Al Gore.

And while the landmark presidential election recount case, Gore vs. Harris, was cited during this week's three-day trial, Meyer argued that the behavior that cost his clients their posts was neither presidential nor American.

"It was like a Third World country," he said of the February overthrow. "It was like a hostile coup. They took over the TV station, the media. They changed the locks. They took over the bank account and then they bad-mouthed the former leadership."

Barkdull agreed, blasting the group for taking the law into their own hands.

Petitions the new board circulated to seize power didn't contain a sufficient number of signatures to remove the old board, he said.

Further, Barkdull said, it was improper to count affidavits signed after the new group took over, particularly when it appeared some were altered to make it appear they were signed before they actually were.

In addition, he said he found that testimony of Desi Larmer, one of the coup leaders, suffered from "a complete lack of credibility."

But in reinstating the old board, Barkdull warned that their fight was far from over.

"There's a lot of homeowners in Lake Charleston who don't agree with what you're doing," he said. "Now that you're reinstated, you have to live together as neighbors, and it's clear you have a deeply divided community."

Those involved say there are other practical, and potentially expensive, matters to address. A playground project that was altered by the now-defrocked leaders will have to be redone, lawyer Meyer said.

The current management company probably will be dismissed, and a new one — headed by a woman who was fired when she refused to work with the new board — will be hired.

There is also the matter of who will pay the legal fees.

Meyer said he will go after the coup leaders. However, their attorney, Janeen Richard, said they can't be held personally liable.

While she declined to say how much her legal bill would be, Meyer estimated his in the $50,000 to $75,000 range.

If those who staged the coup don't pay, it is possible that homeowners or the association's insurer will.

Richard declined to say whether she would appeal Barkdull's ruling.

None of the members of the new board — Larmer, Lester Kotok or Don Miller — could be reached.

The judge ordered the two sides to settle their remaining differences in mediation. If the two sides can't agree, Barkdull said, he will see them back in court.

Attorneys on both sides agreed the case is an unusual one. Typically, drives to unseat homeowner association board members fizzle, or the members resign.

Further, they said, a new law that will go into effect Oct. 1 will clearly spell out the steps that should be taken to remove board members of homeowner associations.

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