St. Petersburg Times
6/13/2009
LARGO — She was in kindergarten when she first met Douglas DeRycke in school in Rochester, N.Y. She liked him in seventh grade, but he was more into bicycles and go-karts. In high school, she got a job as a supermarket cashier, and he bagged the groceries.And then he asked her out on a date.

Gayle and Douglas married in 1967, raised two girls and never wanted anything more than the life they had. But Douglas DeRycke died in 2001 in a car accident near St. Petersburg.

This week, Gayle DeRycke said, was the first time she has felt “inner peace” since the accident.

It wasn’t the amount of money — $5.5 million — that a jury awarded her in her wrongful death lawsuit, she said. It was the fact that someone had been held accountable for the accident that killed her husband.

As for the money, she intends to set up college funds for the five grandchildren born after her husband’s death. She has otherwise given little or no thought to how to spend it.

“Absolutely not — no new house, no new car,” she said.

Douglas DeRycke worked in the cardboard industry in the Rochester area. The couple later moved to Indiana when he took a job as president of a cardboard products company.

The DeRyckes were visiting Florida with friends and business associates in 2001. He was riding in a Mercury Mountaineer driven by Randall T. Knight, and both wives were in the back. Knight apparently swerved while driving on Interstate 275 near 54th Avenue N and lost control of the SUV, which rolled over and over.

When the staff at Bayfront Medical Center gave her the news that he had died, “I just got up and screamed. … I was devastated,” she said. And she stayed devastated. “For two years, I wasn’t even in this world,” she said.

She decided to keep the dream home they had built in Avon, Ind., but eventually moved back to a condo in Rochester. She also has a home in the Largo area.

The pain subsided but has never left. She loves her five grandchildren but says the birth of each one felt “bittersweet” — it just wasn’t right that her husband never got to meet them.

She also fought back. The estate of Douglas DeRycke sued Knight and the company he worked for, Illinois-based Packaging Corp. of America. The lawsuit, filed in 2002, took a long and tortured route through the system, marked by changes in attorneys, a contempt of court charge and a mistrial.

But ultimately the courts decided that Knight and PCA were responsible, said her attorney Steve Yerrid, who handled the case with David Dickey.

This week a jury awarded the estate — of which Gayle DeRycke is the personal representative — about $3.5 million for her loss of companionship. Jurors also awarded her more than $2 million for the lost wages her husband would have earned and to cover costs such as funeral expenses. It is not known whether there will be an appeal.

St. Petersburg attorney Bruce Austin, who represented Knight, said the accident was a tragedy all around, one that his client thinks about every day. He said he and Knight both wish Gayle DeRycke well. A PCA spokeswoman could not be reached.

Gayle DeRycke said that while the verdict gives her a sense of justice, she can’t shake her sense of loss. “The rest of my life, I have to live without him.”

No multimillion-dollar verdict can change that, she said.

“I would go live in a shack somewhere … if I could have him back.”