Florida Facing Impending Lawsuits Over I-75 Crashes

By GARY FINEOUT | August 9, 2012

A series of deadly January crashes on Interstate 75 could trigger more than a dozen lawsuits against the state of Florida.

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles acknowledged Tuesday that it has received 13 lawsuit notices from people who either were injured in the crashes or had family members killed.

Eleven people were killed and 18 hospitalized because of the crashes on a January night near Gainesville. The interstate was covered with smoke and fog.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report found the Florida Highway Patrol made mistakes in reopening the highway about 30 minutes before the crashes began.

The highway safety agency – which oversees the highway patrol – plans to respond Friday to the FDLE report and release its own investigation into the crash.

Julie Jones, the executive director of the agency, told Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet that the report will respond in a “specific and collegial manner” to the problems cited by the FDLE.

But Jones also made it clear that the state would be cautious in responding to media questions about the accident because of the pending lawsuits.

So far the state has been notified by lawyers representing surviving family members of five people who died, including four people from Kennesaw, Ga., who were traveling in a church van.

The estate of Vontavia Robinson, who was from Williston near Gainesville, Fla., has also filed a notice of intent to sue.

A lawyer representing Bernard and Margie Dewitt stated that the accident had left 57-year-old Margie Dewitt with a brain injury and that she has been in a comatose state since January.

The FDLE report found no criminal violations but stated that the Highway Patrol lieutenant who ordered the road reopened had no formal training in procedures for opening and reopening roads.

The report also noted that his decision was supported by other governmental agencies including the Florida Forest Service and state Department of Transportation.

The road had been closed for several hours after smoke from a wildfire, mixed with fog, blanketed the highway where it cut through Paynes Prairie State Park.

The report says a sergeant expressed concerns about reopening the road, but says the order was given because the Highway Patrol lieutenant was worried that keeping the busy highway closed also would be dangerous.

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