$10M Car Accident Verdict in Delivery Driver Crash That Killed Firefighter

The purported negligence of an Orange County pizza delivery driver working for a franchise may cost the parent company as much as $9 million after a jury awarded a $10 million verdict to the plaintiff, the widow of a firefighter who died 15 months of crash-related injuries that left him quadriplegic.

Orlando Sentinel reports the January 2011 crash occurred on a dark stretch of highway in Christmas, when a pizza delivery man tried to merge into a westbound lane of Colonial Drive. He spotted the oncoming headlights approaching as he looked to merge from the median, but thought he had enough time and space.

Decedent, who was behind the wheel, swerved to avoid hitting the deliveryman, but the car flipped and he struck a tree. His fiancee, who later became his wife, was with him at the time of the crash. She suffered leg injuries as shards glass slashed her legs. Her fiance, however, suffered severe injuries.

Decedent received treatment at a hospital in Georgia that specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries. After a few months, the pair made the long drive back to Florida, and stopped in a courthouse and got married along the way. He died months later at age 62 after a blood clot developed in his lungs, something for which quadriplegics are at 19 times higher risk of suffering than the average person. Blood becomes stagnant in the body because the limbs aren’t moving. 

The decedent had served as EMS director and district fire chief in Brevard County for nearly 35 years. He was born in Orlando, earned his master’s degree at the University of Central Florida and taught classes there at the time of the car accident.

Delivery driver was initially charged with running a stop sign. However, that charge was later dismissed. At the time of the crash, the deliveryman had worked for the franchise for about one year delivering pizzas.

At trial, jurors determined the delivery driver was 90 percent negligent and decedent was 10 percent negligent. That means of a $10 million verdict, plaintiff would receive $9 million. But that’s assuming the parent company doesn’t win its bid for a new trial or, barring that, its appeal.

You see, most employers can be held liable for the negligent actions of an employee based on a legal principle known as vicarious liability. That means it doesn’t matter if the company actually did anything negligent, so long as plaintiffs can show the employee, acting in the course and scope of employment, acted negligent.

But the question here is was the parent company actually the employee of this driver or was he an employee of the franchise? The franchise will have far less means to pay a $9 million verdict than the parent company.

Determining whether an individual is employed by a parent company or franchise will depend on a myriad of factors, including the degree of control a company has over the individual worker. Although not directly pertinent to this case, it might be worth noting that this has been spelled out somewhat extensively in an unrelated wage theft case against Domino’s out of New York, where it is asserted the parent company wielded a great deal of control in franchise operations and in fact “micromanaged” them, according to the New York Attorney General.

The company had already agreed to pay decedent’s medical expenses. Whether a new trial will be held on the remaining damages remains to be seen.

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