Alamo Rent A Car was ordered Friday to pay $7.7 million for a fatal accident caused by a British sailor who fell asleep at the wheel of his rented car, killing himself and two ship-mates.
A Miami jury ordered the company to pay under a 1934 state law that holds the owner of a car liable for any accidents, regardless of who is driving it.
The car crash involved sailors from the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal, which paid a call on Port Everglades in July 1986. Free on liberty, the shipmates rented the car in Fort Lauderdale, where Alamo is based, and headed for Florida’s Gulf Coast via Alligator Alley.
The driver, John McGreevy, 38, dozed off as the sailors passed through Collier County. The car went airborne, tumbled several times and landed in a nearby canal.
Besides McGreevy, David Stark, 36, and David West, 35, were killed. A fourth ship-mate, Benjamin Clay, now 38, survived, but severely gashed his face when he escaped the water-filled car.
The Ark Royal’s crew mourned for the dead. In Great Britain, psychologists labored to help their families.
“These people were devastated,” said Miami lawyer Brett Panter, who with his partner, Ronald Buschbom, represented survivor Clay and the families of Stark and West.
The lawyers argued that under Florida’s 55 year old “dangerous instrumentality law,” Alamo was responsible for McGreevy’s driving. Other states have similar laws, and companies have been held liable before.
But most people don’t realize that when they give their car to another person, if that person injures, kills or damages property, they are responsible along with the driver,” Buschbom said.
The Miami lawyers filed their suit in Dade County for convenience. Panter flew to Britain and videotaped testimony of the dead sailors’ families and their doctors. Another 13 witnesses flew in from Britain to testify.
The case was tried in two parts before separate judges and juries. One decided the liability, the other the damages.
The sailors’ lawyers hired mock jurors to rehearse the case, and were alerted to the possibility that real jurors would think the law is unfair.
They were right.
“All of them said, “We don’t like it,” Buschbom said. “But they said they would follow the law.”
The lawyers argued before Dade Circuit Judge Francis Knuck, who was forced to split the case for medical reasons. He turned the second half over to Circuit Judge Joseph Nadler.
A rental car company is not like a human being, the lawyers said, “A friend giving his car to a friend knows pretty much who they are, and where they’re going to go,” Buschbom said.
But the sailors were tourists from another country. They didn’t know much about Alligator Alley, a monotonous, treacherous road with a high accident rate. Alamo, the lawyers argued, was duty-bound to en-sure the sailors’ safe arrival.
Last week, Jury No. 1 agreed. It also decided that the other sailors were not responsible, even though they shared the cost of the rental. McGreevy, the driver, was the only one on the rental contract.
On Monday, Jury No. 2 was summoned to decide damages.
Jurors heard that the sailors came from the small town of Plymouth on the southern coast of England. When ships are in home port, sailors are rarely more than 100 miles from their families.
The jurors saw the videotaped testimony of psychologists who treated the widows of Stark and West. They learned that nerves in Clay’s face were cut, and that he has nightmares about the accident.
On Thursday, they returned with their huge award.
The lawyers had asked for $1.5 million for each widow and $400,000 for Clay. Instead, they got more than $3.5 million for each family and $648,410 for Clay and his wife.