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Lawsuit may bankrupt Sugarwood Grove

The taxing district has spent several years and thousands of dollars fighting a lawsuit filed after a woman was killed in a car accident at the entrance to the community.

By TIM GRANT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003


CARROLLWOOD -- Between college and two jobs, Francisca Payrol barely had a moment to spare. So her father was especially proud when she battled the bureaucracy and completed the test to become a U.S. citizen.

"She was real busy," Rolando Payrol said. "She had no time for nothing."

His 29-year-old daughter, born in Cuba, expected to realize her dream on June 28, 1999. She would sign the final paperwork, swear the oath of allegiance and receive her certificate of citizenship. She had taken a rare day off work to celebrate.

But Francisca Payrol never made it to the ceremony. As she was turning left from Fulmar Drive out of Sugarwood Grove, a car slammed into her silver 1995 Nissan Sentra on Ehrlich Road.

The 11:10 a.m. crash killed her instantly.

Nearly four years later, the tragedy is being retold in Hillsborough Circuit Court, where a lawsuit is calling into question the safety of the intersection and the responsibility of the subdivision. The suit pits government agencies against each other and threatens the financial stability of Sugarwood Grove.

"We've spent over $11,000 in legal fees," said Len Soniat, president of the community's special tax district. "Now we have no funds for legal defense or upkeep of the community. We have only $1,000 in our account."

Rolando Payrol's lawsuit alleges his daughter died because Sugarwood Grove's wooden entrance sign and subdivision wall blocked her view of traffic on Ehrlich.

The case bears some resemblance to a lawsuit filed in 1998 by Debra and Tom Jackson. The Jacksons alleged that Hunter's Green improperly planted shrubbery that blocked Mrs. Jackson's view as she was turning left into the subdivision.

Mrs. Jackson said she never saw the pickup speeding toward her on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Instead, she saw bushes and trees. The vehicles collided in the intersection, killing Jackson's 11-year-old daughter and permanently disabling her then-7-year-old daughter.

Among those Payrol holds responsible are: the special tax district, the Hillsborough County government and the Florida Department of Transportation.

Payrol also has sued Sara VanHouten, the driver of the 1988 Cadillac Coupe DeVille that hit his daughter, and the Cadillac's owner, William Pensmith. He wants compensation for funeral expenses, mental pain and suffering and the future loss of support due to his daughter's death.

After two years of litigation, government agencies still cannot agree on why the accident happened.

"We have looked at the intersection and it complies with all safety guidelines," said Rob Brazel, an assistant county attorney.

But the Hillsborough sheriff's deputy who investigated the Payrol crash reached a different conclusion.

"The obvious question which arises is, why did (Payrol) attempt to turn left (in) such close proximity to (VanHouten)?," wrote Deputy Jason McConnell in his report. "A plausible explanation is the visual obstruction created by the wooden sign and concrete wall on the northeast corner of the subdivision."

While homeowners in the Sugarwood Grove tax district contend with mounting legal bills, they have developed hard feelings toward county officials who, they feel, abandoned them.

"To me, the county should be willing to defend us because we don't have the resources to do it," Soniat said. "The thing that bothers me about this is not the suit itself, but the county's response to our neighborhood's plight."

A downward spiral

Rolando Payrol describes his daughter as quiet, serious and determined to succeed against the odds.

One of six sisters, she arrived in the United States as a baby and in Tampa at age 3. Payrol, who was divorced in 1983, supported the girls as a maintenance employee for the City of Tampa. Francisca played softball for Jefferson High School.

While enrolled at Hillsborough Community College, she worked full time at NationsBank as a 10-key operator. On weekends, she was a cashier at the Target store on Waters Avenue, Payrol said.

She had been living at 5531 Pentail Circle for about a year with a roommate. She never married and had no children.

Beyond the grief it caused her family and friends, her death touched off a downward spiral for the Sugarwood Grove community.

It began two years ago, Soniat said, as he returned from a vacation in Switzerland. A process server was waiting at his door.

"He handed me 200 pages of documents and walked away," Soniat said. "I realized it was a lawsuit and I had 30 days to respond. I was tired and I panicked."

The court documents showed Soniat, an IBM software engineer, was being sued as president of the tax board, as president of the homeowner association and individually.

The tax board authorized Soniat to hire Tampa lawyer Robert Shimberg to handle the three cases at $165 an hour. They had no idea how long it would take or what it would cost. At the time, the community had $5,000 in a contingency fund.

"The only way to describe it is, things went on and on," Soniat said.

Sugarwood Grove has 273 households, who pay $100 each in annual assessments. About $20,000 of the annual $27,300 budget goes to payments for the perimeter wall. Homeowners also must pay the county 4 percent of their budget to collect the taxes. They must refrain from budgeting an additional 5 percent, under county ordinance.

The community has only about $5,000 for fiscal year 2004, which is barely enough to mow the grass along the wall and keep the wall clean.

Things are so bad, members of the tax board volunteered to cut the grass along the wall with their own mowers, until a lawyer warned them against it.

"If you're pushing the lawn mower and an object hits a car, we could be liable for that too," Soniat said.

They no longer have a lawyer. Shimberg was able to get the lawsuit dismissed against Sugarwood Grove's defunct homeowners association and the one against Soniat dropped. But he withdrew from the case early this year because the community cannot pay his law firm, Hill Ward & Henderson.

The lawsuit contends Sugarwood Grove had some liability in blocking the view of Francisca Payrol when she pulled out and was killed.

"There's no doubt the sign could block your view of the road," Soniat said. "I wouldn't contest that."

But Soniat said the homeowner association authorized the sign long before the tax district was formed. And when the concrete wall was built in 1996, Ehrlich Road was still a two-lane corridor.

He said the subdivision wall and sign did not become visual obstructions until after the county widened Ehrlich to four lanes. The section in front of Sugarwood Grove was completed roughly a year before the accident. And during construction, county workers uprooted the signs, he said.

"You would think the county would be more responsible for the obstructions or even for notifying us of the potential," Soniat said. "Honestly, we never thought about it. We should have gone out and looked at it, but honestly, it never occurred to us.

"After knowing all the facts that I now know, I have a lot more respect for the plaintiff's point of view. I don't think it is a frivolous lawsuit. Somebody should have gone and looked at this. I just don't know where the responsibility lies."

The Sugarwood Grove tax district reports to the county government. But Brazel does not think the County Attorney's Office can represent the homeowners in this lawsuit because of a potential conflict of interest.

"If this office represents the county and the district and it turns out the district is responsible, then it puts us in a difficult position," Brazel said.

Debra Jackson, the Hunter's Green driver, filed her suit against a homeowner association, not a taxing authority. But like Payrol, the Jacksons believed others should share the blame for the car crash.

They argued the developer and community association were responsible for shrubbery in the median that blocked her view. They settled with four defendants, including the landscaping firm that planted the shrubs and the insurance company for pickup driver Harold Vann. They won a $10.6-million award in March 2001 from the community association and Markborough Development Co. A jury also assigned Vann, now in prison on a drunken driving conviction, 45 percent of the blame.

Similarly, Tampa lawyer Daniel Perez, who is representing the Payrols, maintains many were at fault in Francisca Payrol's death.

He contends that when the county widened Ehrlich Road, workers did nothing to make the exit at Fulmar Drive safer. Widening the road made the intersection more dangerous because it brought traffic closer to the community, he said. A new median cut, which allowed left turns, made the hazard even worse.

"It was a recipe for problems," Perez said. "The proof of that recipe is the death that occurred at that intersection. If at the end of the day this family doesn't get a dollar, so be it. But hopefully, we can prevent someone else from dying there."

The county attorney's office rejected a settlement offer for $95,000 in March. Unlike the Hunter's Green Community Association, the Sugarwood Tax District is considered a government agency and, therefore, cannot be made to pay more than $100,000 in a liability claim. Brazel said the $95,000 offer was too close to the cap.

"If their settlement offer was $50,000, we'd be more concerned about the cap," Brazel said, explaining that a lower settlement amount might be worth paying in order to avoid court costs. "But $95,000 doesn't give us much to think about."

'People don't want to serve'

The tax district in Sugarwood Grove could have lessened its financial exposure by taking out liability insurance.

But, while advisable, that's easier said than done, said Mary Mahoney, the county's tax district coordinator. Although seven of Hillsborough County's 43 special tax districts budget money for liability insurance, she does not know of any that have managed to secure it.

"We cannot find anyone who will provide liability insurance," said Andy Patterson, president of the Lake Heather community on N Dale Mabry Highway.

Insurance can be costly, and Mahoney acknowledges many districts cannot afford it. The law does require tax districts to have a public official bond of $5,000 covering the president, vice president and treasurer of a tax district. That bond protects taxpayers if one of the officers commits fraud. But tax districts cannot tap into that money to pay expenses in a lawsuit.

As it stands, Sugarwood Grove officials have considered disbanding their tax district.

"People don't want to serve on a board that has this many problems," Soniat said.

"It was hard enough to get members when all we had to do was a budget and lawn maintenance. Now we're poverty stricken. We can't even buy a sandwich."

-- Tim Grant can be reached at (813) 269-5311 or at rant@sptimes.com .

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