Blair, cafe settle lawsuit

The Hillsborough official says a fall at Carrabba's ended his wrestling career.

By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 28, 2007

TAMPA - Six years after a restaurant accident that he blamed for ending his professional wrestling career, Brian Blair has settled his negligence lawsuit against Carrabba's Italian Grill.

The civil suit, scheduled to go to trial in October, was "amicably settled" on Aug. 4 and dismissed by Circuit Judge Charlene Honeywell six days later. No terms of the agreement were released, and no one connected with the case was saying Monday what prompted the settlement after almost five years of litigation.

But Carrabba's attorney, Donald G. Greiwe, had filed papers indicating Blair was impaired at the time he tripped over a tray of bussed dishes at the restaurant. And Greiwe's exhibit list included a videotape of a tag-team wrestling match in Nagano, Japan, in October 2001 - more than four months after Blair's accident in the Carrabba's on North Dale Mabry Highway.

A four-sport athlete at Tampa Bay Tech, Blair debuted on the professional wrestling circuit in 1977. In 1985, he joined Jim Brunzell to form the "Killer Bees" tag-team duo in the World Wrestling Federation. He later operated and sold four Gold's Gyms in the Tampa Bay area.

Blair claimed his ring career came to an end on the evening of June 2, 2001, when he visited Carrabba's with his wife and two sons. After taking his sons to the restroom, Blair rounded the bar and tripped over a tray of dirty dishes left in "a poorly lit area," fell and hit his chin against the counter, then continued to fall, striking his right knee, right shoulder and his head on the floor, according to his complaint.

"It knocked the dog doo-doo out of me," Blair recounted in a deposition.

Blair said he remembers his sons crying after he fell and the children suffering "trauma" as a result of witnessing the accident. In his suit, Blair said he suffered "physical handicap" and claimed his "working ability in the future may be impaired."

Blair, 50, filed the lawsuit on Nov. 5, 2002, three days after losing his first run for public office in a race for a Hillsborough County Commission seat won by Pat Frank. In 2004, Blair, a Republican, tried again and won a commission seat in a close contest against Bob Buckhorn.

He continued to press his case against Carrabba's even after his original lawyers quit. Attorneys Nadine S. Diaz and Ron Darrigo, who had taken Blair's case on a contingency basis, withdrew in January 2006, citing "irreconcilable differences" with Blair.

The attorney for Carrabba's, meanwhile, was ready to offer as evidence a videotape of Blair's wrestling match in Japan and two other surveillance tapes of Blair made months after the accident, as well as medical records showing Blair was legally impaired at the time of the fall.

A record filed by Greiwe of an examination of Blair at St. Joseph's Hospital about an hour after the accident showed a blood alcohol of 0.089 percent, above the 0.08 level at which state law presumes an individual to be impaired. Greiwe said in court papers that Blair's fall was the "result of his own negligence."

Asked in a sworn deposition about his condition, Blair denied drinking before coming to the restaurant, suggesting he might have taken "one sip" of Carrabba's house wine before the fall.

Blair also testified he had taken prescribed Vicodin, Vioxx and Xanax "on and off" during his wrestling career, but insisted he was drug-free when he arrived at Carrabba's.

"The day I went to Carrabba's, I was in the best mood of my life," he testified. "I was with my family. We were all smiling and happy, and I was - I know that I - I had a clear mind, if that is what you're getting at. I don't think I took any kind of medicine. I was just a happy camper."

Blair has filed papers to run for re-election in 2008. But as he and his new attorney, R. Christopher Rodems, moved to settle the lawsuit this month, the commissioner was busy fighting off several bouts of controversy that might stick in voters' minds a year from now.

As part of the 4-3 majority voting to kill the county's wetlands protection program this summer, Blair was forced to dodge both citizen and editorial brickbats. Blair and his majority later reversed their stance and voted to keep a revamped program.

At about the same time, Blair was the subject of a St. Petersburg Times story that said he had pressed for work on the Noreast Lake behind his home, a lake where the county has spent more hours than at any of the other 229 lakes in the county. Blair bristled that he had been maligned after a county report called the expenditures appropriate.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.