Court says Tampa owes $18-million

Published March 31, 2007

TAMPA - The city of Tampa is back on the hook for a nearly $18-million jury award owed to a man who crashed with a city Water Department truck.

Eleven years after the near-fatal wreck, Ramiro G. Companioni Jr. hasn't received a penny from the verdict.

Until Friday, it looked as though the trial was headed for a do-over.

City attorneys had persuaded Circuit Judge Herbert Baumann to order a new trial after they learned that two jurors failed to disclose felony convictions.

But the 2nd District Court of Appeal on Friday reversed the Hillsborough judge's ruling and said the personal injury award from the 2004 trial - the largest ever against the city - should stand.

Attorneys on both sides of the case learned about the opinion from a news reporter. One was happy with the appellate decision.

"This is wonderful!" said Dominic O. Fariello, who argued the appeal for Companioni in March 2006.

One wasn't.

"We're disappointed," city attorney David Smith said.

Companioni's motorcycle slammed into the back of a city truck Nov. 26, 1996, on Hillsborough Avenue near 50th Street. His attorney argued that the truck caused the crash by veering dangerously across three lanes of traffic.

Companioni, once a successful chef, learned to walk again after nearly having his legs amputated. His right knee was fused and he could not bend at the waist. He now sells hot dogs outside Tampa Bay Buccaneers games and at car dealerships.

The two judges in the majority wrote that the city failed to prove that an unfair jury issued the verdict.

The judges said some unqualified people inevitably land on jury panels because prospective jurors self-report their criminal histories. But their presence alone, without proof of bias or prejudice, was not enough to set aside a jury verdict.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Darryl Casanueva said the city might make a case for prejudice. But he faulted the attorneys who represented the city at trial for not questioning jurors about their criminal backgrounds even though one juror admitted on a questionnaire to having been accused of a crime.

The latest decision still leaves 44-year-old Companioni with "a paper verdict," his attorney said.

Any judgement of more than $100,000 against a city requires approval by the state Legislature. That process itself can take years.

Smith said the city has other appellate issues pending before the trial court and will talk with its outside counsel to determine what steps to take next.

Fariello is hopeful a settlement might now be reached in mediation.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.