Construction company, widow agree to settlement

Published February 15, 2007

More than three years after Robert Romaine drowned in the Homosassa River, his widow has settled a negligence lawsuit against a construction company she claimed was partially responsible for his death.

Romaine was a passenger in a car that plunged off a boat ramp and into the river during an October 2003 rainstorm.

In a lawsuit filed in 2005, Josephine Romaine alleged Lester's Construction Co. "failed to post adequate signs to detour traffic" away from the boat ramp.

Mrs. Romaine and her attorney declined to discuss the details of the settlement.

But the 77-year-old Hernando resident said she was satisfied with the deal attorneys negotiated last Friday - just three days before a civil trial was slated to start.

"We're very relieved that it's over," she said. "It's been a long time."

Ocala attorney James Collins, who represented Mrs. Romaine, said the settlement was fair.

"We believe all the parties responsible for causing the accident have appropriately accepted responsibility," he said.

Joseph Patsko, an attorney representing Lester's Construction Co., did not return calls requesting comment.

As rain pounded down about 7:15 p.m. on Oct. 28, 2003, Frances Siko drove a four-door Buick north on S Boulevard Drive in Homosassa. She turned onto S Cherokee Way, passing a sign that read: "Dead End 250 Feet."

The car carried three passengers who had just dined at the Riverside Resort: Josephine Romaine, Robert Romaine and Vincentine Leva.

"We thought we were just turning onto a road. The next thing, What's going on? The water is coming in," Mrs. Romaine told a Florida Highway Patrol investigator. "And, my God, I realized we were sinking."

Mrs. Romaine said she screamed to her husband to unfasten his seat belt.

"I opened the door and it just swished me right out," she said.

Siko and Leva also escaped from the car. But Robert Romaine did not.

At the time, Lester's Construction was working on the county's Homosassa Area Wastewater Collection System. The project included construction on S Cherokee Way, near where the road ends and turns into a Homosassa River boat ramp.

As part of its contract with the county, Lester's assumed responsibility for controlling traffic on the road where it performed work, according to the lawsuit.

The settlement came more than 19 months after Romaine's estate settled another negligence lawsuit, which claimed Citrus County failed to adequately warn motorists of the sudden boat ramp on Cherokee.

Commissioners approved spending $100,000 from the county's property and casualty claims budget to settle the case.

Collins said Lester's agreed to pay more than $100,000, but he declined to further specify a settlement amount.

Robert Romaine's death prompted Citrus to install warning signs and raised red reflectors near the boat ramp, as well as other warnings across the county.

Mrs. Romaine said Wednesday that she has not seen the new signs.

"I have not gone back there since," she said. "I cannot bear to go back there. ... We were married almost 50 years. We were having dinner one minute, and the next minute it was over."

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309.