St. Petersburg Times
10/1/2009
BROOKSVILLE — All along, Angela Stone never had much hope of collecting money from the man convicted of killing her 13-year-old daughter in a drunken-driving accident in April 2007.Stone filed a civil lawsuit against Christopher Marcone to send a message, her attorney said. And it’s a message that Stone hopes gets the attention of reckless motorists and the automaker they have sued in Hillsborough County.

In what local court observers are calling one of the largest verdicts they can recall, a Hernando County jury on Wednesday awarded more than $330 million in civil damages to Stone.

“Clearly, this jury objectively evaluated the enormity of her loss,” said Steve Yerrid, Stone’s attorney. “But all the money in the world isn’t going to bring her daughter back.”

Jurors — all six of them women — deliberated for less than an hour before deciding Marcone should have to pay Stone $55 million in compensatory damages and $275 million in punitive damages. Marcone, 27, is serving a 13-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter and three related charges in the death of Shelby Taylor Hagman.

The fatal crash occurred on the night of April 12, 2007, when Shelby was riding in a minivan with her grandparents, Larry and Deborah Wynn of Brooksville. Marcone’s Dodge pickup ran a stop sign in a residential neighborhood in eastern Hernando County and plowed into the right side of the van.

Shelby, who lived part of the time with her grandparents and attended Parrott Middle School in Brooksville, died the next day.

Reports showed that Marcone’s blood alcohol level was 0.207, more than twice the level at which a driver is presumed impaired.

After the jury reached its verdict Wednesday, Yerrid said Stone knew from the start that getting restitution from Marcone would be highly improbable.

Stone also has filed a wrongful death suit in Hillsborough against Kia Motors Corp. and a local auto dealer, claiming that a defective passenger restraint system — seat belt and shoulder harness — contributed to Shelby’s fatal injuries. According to reports, Shelby was wearing her seat belt at the time of the accident, but got her head snarled in the belt and was found with her feet in the air.

“This is not a small case. This is a big case,” Yerrid said. “Kia is on notice. Because unlike Mr. Marcone, Kia has a lot more than $330 million. We’ll see if they want to tussle.”

Representatives of Kia could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Around the Tampa Bay legal community, news of the $330 million verdict was greeted with surprise.

“That has to be one of the largest verdicts in the state of Florida,” said Tom Carey, a Clearwater lawyer and past president of local chapters of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Remove Intoxicated Drivers. “And it sends a message to future drunk drivers that the public is just not going to tolerate this anymore.”

Tampa lawyer Dale Swope said the compensatory damages were large, but far from the most he’d heard of in his career. He added that punitive damages are normally awarded to “catch headlines” but are rarely paid to plaintiffs.

At the courthouse in Brooksville, Marcone attorney Bryan Reynolds had no comment. Reynolds mounted little defense during the trial, calling no witnesses, cross-examining no one and choosing to make only a short closing statement.

After the verdict, each juror gave Stone a hug. Many of them had shed tears during testimony, which included an 11-minute home video of Shelby playing with friends and mugging for the camera.

Though none of the jurors was willing to comment, alternate juror Anita Bosworth of Spring Hill said she wasn’t surprised by the large award.

“That was about right in my mind,” said Bosworth, who was released before deliberations. “I would have gone back and given (Stone) the very most that I could, too.”

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.