Stella Case No. 119, Originally Published: 23 May 2007
Lawsuits often end with the same venom and vitriol with which they’re fought. Usually, the losing side vows to appeal and vigorously denies fault to the end. But not always: This one ended with the losing side thanking the winner, and with a hug.
It’s a horrible story, as many wrongful death lawsuits are. Brenda Brown was passing the Town ’N Country Car Wash in Tampa, Fla., with her 18-month-old son Darnell in a stroller, when an Isuzu Rodeo barreled out of the wash tunnel, out of control. She managed to push Darnell to safety, but was killed by the SUV’s impact, leaving her husband McNeil “Mac” Brown to raise Darnell on his own. It’s no surprise Mr. Brown chose to sue for wrongful death.
In the resulting lawsuit’s first surprise, the car wash admitted fault on the eve of trial. Cars are supposed to be turned off in the tunnel, but this one was still running. Employee Denzil Blake, who accidentally knocked the SUV into gear, had no driver’s license, and hit the accelerator instead of the brake, not knowing the difference. (Florida law allows unlicensed operators on private property.) Especially with a surveillance tape showing the horrific accident among the evidence, you might say it’s no wonder the defendants admitted responsibility in order to move directly to a trial on damages — but it’s rare enough that it bears noting.
What’s even rarer, though, is what happened next. The jury announced their nearly $7.6 million verdict in compensatory damages, and the two sides were about to begin arguments on a punitive award — additional damages designed to go beyond compensation and punish the negligence, in the hopes of sending a message to a defendant and those similarly situated. But plaintiff Mac Brown said enough was enough.
“This was never about the money,” the widower said after the verdict, announcing he was withdrawing his claim for punitive damages. “This was always about the memory of an incredible woman.” He added that his decision is what Brenda would have wanted, that he simply wanted to ensure that nobody else would ever “be hurt like this,” and reaching the punitive phase of the trial was enough to make it “clear to any other car wash owner” that they must “do the right thing.”
In other words, rather than go after every possible penny, he declared that the jury’s $7.5 million award was enough, and refused any more. The jury would have been generous.
It will be enough of a challenge for Mac to collect $7.5 million from the car wash, whose insurance policy has a $2 million limit. But jurors later reported having considered punitive damages in the tens of millions of dollars.
Some jurors also commented on the class that Brown’s decision showed, but it was the defendants who appeared to be moved the most: Thomas and Diane Lyons, former owners and operators of the car wash, approached Brown to speak to him for the first time, and said they were sorry for his loss. Then Diane hugged him and cried — and Thomas thanked him, saying, “That showed a lot of class.”
Indeed it did. And what a precedent it sets for others, making Brown the first-ever recipient of an Anti-Stella Award.
- “For Victim’s Husband, Closure Tops Revenge”, St. Petersburg Times, 27 January 2007.
- “Man’s Act of Forgiveness Stuns Jury, Honors Wife”, Tampa Tribune, 27 January 2007.
As noted, award made and punitive damages refused.
My 2022 Thoughts on the Case
This is the second case written by a guest author, an attorney. He was particularly happy to be assigned a case of a plaintiff who truly did the right thing, literally turning down millions of dollars a generous jury was ready to hand out.
Yes he deserved compensation from the car wash due to their negligence, but he showed that there’s no need to be greedy, to completely destroy the other side. “Mac” Brown is thus the first to be awarded what I’ll call the “Anti-Stella”; the message he is sending indeed needs to be heard widely.
Other than that, as I expected there was no case update to be found.
Letters about the case of the drunk off-duty soldier who survived Iraq, but didn’t survive when he climbed into a commercial air conditioning unit (Case No. 118).
Jim in California: “Wow, that second case is truly amazing! Not only that Mr. Brown did the right thing, but that the car wash did as well! Too often I’ve seen defendants try to deny blame for an incident in the hopes of minimizing any payout resulting from the case. Both the car wash owners and Mr. Brown are, in my opinion, perfect examples of how the system should work. They really do give me faith in our society.”
Pete in Georgia: “Thanks, Randy, for including an anti-Stella award story (perhaps it should be called the Stellar award?) in the latest issue. Don’t you wish such classy behavior were the norm? I view the of True Stella Awards with mixed feelings. Some of the stories are hard to take, making me almost glad you didn’t publish them too often.”
I’m glad you liked the Anti-Stella, but no, I won’t be calling them the Stellar Awards: we already get confused with the Stellar Gospel Music Awards (yes, really!) as it is, and I don’t want to encourage it further.
Peter in the U.K. disagrees: “You write that ‘.. the car wash admitted fault on the eve of trial.’ Laudable as that may be, it seems to me that the facts are so clear that the car wash and their insurance company and lawyers could have got there much sooner. It seems to me that many defendants delay admission of liability until the eve of a trial simply to see establish that the plaintiff has the determination and ability to prove what everyone knows: in the vernacular, to make sure they’ve jumped through all the judicial hoops. This attitude still results in unnecessary legal fees, wasted time and stress for an injured plaintiff. We hear about sanctions against frivolous lawsuits (on plaintiffs), but I think it would also be fair to impose sanctions against defendants who persist in using ‘process’ to defend the indefensible and delay justice unnecessarily.”
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