Larry Worley and I shared a mutual grandfather, S.M. Hankins, Sr. He always counseled against being out on Saturday night. He had a name for it that wasn't politically correct even in the days of Bull Connor, Lester Maddox and George Wallace. Ironically, it was on a Monday in 1951 that The St. Pete Times carried a story in its "News of the Negro Community" that in broad daylight the day before one Willie Burney of Tampa and two of his "cronies" had collided with my grandfather's Buick on the west approach to Gandy bridge, then run into the nearby wooded area, leaving behind a five gallon jug of moonshine. Willie's two friends were quickly caught, and Willie himself was found at his own East Tampa home around 8 o'clock that night. He was charged with five state violations and federal liquor charges on top of that. My grandfather's Buick had about $450 in damage. It was a picaresque episode worthy of a mid-70s Burt Reynolds movie, and the article handled it lightheartedly, in keeping with that era's collective attitude toward the ways alcohol and automobiles converged.
Fast forward almost exactly sixty-two years. Attitudes have changed. Drunk driving is now seen for the deadly evil that it is, and nobody's laughing. On the evening of Saturday June 9, my cousins Larry Worley, his sons Ransom, Rockwell and McRyder were traveling home to Myakka City after a church event and dinner out on Highway 70, a divided six-lane road. As they passed through the Lakewood Ranch area in the ‘06 Ford Expedition Larry bought two weeks earlier to replace a decrepit Dodge minivan, they were struck head-on by Merritt Hilton “Skip” Duryea, 54 the wrong-way driver of a Ford F-150 who according to his friend had been drinking at a nearby Applebees earlier in the day.
Larry and the other driver died on the scene. Eleven year old Ransom, seated behind Larry had a severe head injury but still had a thready pulse, and he was airlifted to All Children’s Hospital in St. Pete, as were the other two. Riding shotgun, Rockwell had lung and liver bruises, a severe laceration on his forehead that also blacked one eye, a laceration on his knee and his left upper arm was broken in two places, with the break near the elbow requiring surgery to reassemble it with pins. McRyder, 7 in the most protected seat suffered only a bruise on his liver and abrasions on his neck from the shoulder harness. Despite the best efforts of the trauma team, Ransom didn’t make it.
Sadly for Rockwell, 13 the hospital is nothing new. He suffers from neurofibromatosis, a disease that causes the formation of benign growths that can turn cancerous. He had open heart surgery at age 3 to remove a membrane that had attached itself to a heart valve. Last year, the same surgery had to be repeated. This spring he was diagnosed with one of the tumors on his optic nerve.
Rockwell’s medical expenses and the Great Recession had taken a toll on Larry’s marriage, and over two years ago Tamara, his wife left without the children. There were a lot of hard feelings on both sides, and this resulted in a costly custody battle that severely taxed both sides' remaining resources. Larry, a strapping sixty-three year old Texan with the energy and optimism of someone in his forties, was formerly a mortgage broker and was in the process of building his own homeowners’ association management company while raising three boys on his own and even homeschooling one of them. The communities he managed were so small that significant sums cannot be realized from sale of the accounts that he had garnered.
Tamara had rented a U-Haul and loaded it up with many of her possessions following a custody hearing earlier in the week, and she had just arrived back in suburban Chicago when the news reached her. She was faced with the impossible choice of making her home ready for the boys’ return and arranging local follow-up care or traveling immediately. Larry’s father, mother and stepfather are all long dead, and Tamara’s relationship with her parents is complicated and they are not on speaking terms at the moment. Larry’s daughter from a prior marriage, her mother and her son drove in from Texas to participate in the memorial service at Woodland Community Church in Bradenton last Wednesday.
There has been no sign in his papers or accounts that Larry had life insurance. At sixty-three years of age, it may have been an expense beyond his budget. His auto policy has been found, and it appears he opted out of uninsured motorist coverage, which is a false economy many folks fall into. It turns out that not only did the other driver carry only $20,000 of liability coverage, but his estranged widow is now trying to make a claim against Larry's estate. Since Larry carried $25,000 in coverage and insurance companies often pay smaller amounts rather than pay the expense of defending while still risking a payout, it is possible that she alone will collect more liability money than will come in with respect to what happened to all four of the occupants of Larry's Expedition.
According to the other driver's friend who was with him that afternoon, the amount of alcohol he consumed at the establishment would not rise to the level of him having been “overserved” but even if it had, the potential for a dram shop lawsuit in Florida is almost nil. For liability, Florida’s laws require the drinker be under 21 or be someone the bar has been notified is a habitual drunkard (that needs to change, but it's an issue that will have to be left for another day). At first blush, there is nothing remarkable about the six-lane divided highway or its markings or signage that would indicate a potential highway engineering error on the part of the FDOT. With a 100+ mph closing speed, the likelihood of pursuing a product liability case based on the Expedition’s crashworthiness is also nil. In terms of protection it did its job and then some. I am reevaluating my own penchant for compact cars. Five star crash ratings have suddenly become nothing to sneer at.
Our heroic family friend Tina Walker, her son Jared Walker and daughter Sydney, along with Tina's mother Ann Allen, Tina's sister and brother-in-law have been help take care of the boys, as did my mom, Dot Hankins. My wife Julie juggled her demanding recruiting career as well as serving as the switchboard through which medical providers, law enforcement, the press, family and friends communicated. I put my law practice largely on hold to be with them at the hospital, and to drive them where they needed to be, and spent time at Larry's home in Myakka City going through his business and personal effects. With helicopter services, All Children's hospital and other medical providers all vying for the few dollars available, it will take all my legal skills to hold onto the scant monies available from the other driver's automobile policy. There is, however, case law that should allow the bulk of it to be allocated to four wrongful death actions afforded Tamara and the boys, and away from the claims that would leave dollars available for the medical providers, who will be able to share in the no-fault coverage and Florida KidCare monies.
The boys still need help. Tamara was barely able to cover their travel costs to Chicago, but has not even been able to cover Ransom's final expenses yet. A whole rented house needs to be packed up and cleaned and the contents moved north by the end of the month. It will be some time before she will be able to access the death benefits provided by Florida's no-fault auto insurance. Their medical expenses and their future education expenses are much iffier. Tamara and the surviving boys will receive modest amounts from Social Security, but that won't be enough and any amount is welcome. An account has been set up at Chase Bank, and any branch can receive a donation made out to The Worley Family Trust. Thank you and God bless.