The fiancee of an East Naples man killed in an early-morning crash with a Collier County Sheriff’s deputy in early 2007 filed a wrongful death lawsuit, claiming both the deputy and the Sheriff’s Office acted negligently in the wreck.
Collier County and the Board of County Commissioners were also named as defendants in the lawsuit, which was filed in Collier Circuit Court on March 6.
The plaintiff expects a verdict of $2 million to $2.5 million in the wrongful death case, said Ralph Patino, a Coral Gables-based attorney representing Marina Garza, the fiancee of then-32-year-old Felix Beltran.
“That’s without punitive damages,” Patino said.
The Sheriff’s Office declined comment on the lawsuit.
“It’s inappropriate for us to comment on pending lawsuits,” Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Karie Partington said.
Attempts to reach Garza for comment were not successful.
About 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 18, 2007, Beltran, 5205 Perry Lane, was traveling eastbound on U.S. 41 in a left turn lane. When he turned his 1991 Oldsmobile left across U.S. 41 onto Broward Street, he was T-boned by Deputy Jesse Todd, who was responding to a call for assistance to a robbery.
Beltran, who was not wearing a seat belt, was killed instantly, the Florida Highway Patrol reported.
An internal investigation released in October revealed that Todd and Deputy Christopher Avery, who were driving to the call in tandem, did not have their emergency lights or sirens on.
The FHP initially reported that Todd was traveling at 97 mph in a 55-mph zone at the time of the crash, even though a shift supervisor had reclassified the call as a lower-level incident. A collision reconstruction expert retained by the Sheriff’s Office’s insurance carrier and two Sheriff’s Office traffic homicide investigators estimated Todd’s speed between 70 mph and 80 mph, the internal investigation revealed.
However, Patino said data downloaded from the electronic control module in Todd’s vehicle indicates that the FHP’s estimate was closer to the mark.
“All late-model vehicles come with ECMs, the black box,” Patino said. “That black box was downloaded. That gives you speed upon impact... It was approximately 100 mph.”
A medical examiner later determined that Beltran had a 0.32 blood alcohol level, four times the legal limit, and tested positive for cocaine.
“As far as we’re concerned, it was probably better that he didn’t feel the impact because it could have happened to anybody,” Patino said. “He was making a legal left hand turn at the intersection and there is no way that he would have been able to anticipate the speed of that oncoming vehicle at 100 mph. It just can’t happen, and the experts will tell you that.”
In October, Todd and Avery were cleared by Collier Sheriff Don Hunter of any wrongdoing in the wreck. Instead, the deputies were placed on 12 months’ probation and received a letter of reprimand for failing to notify a supervisor that they were responding to the call in the first place.
Hunter called the crash tragic at a press conference in October, and said it could have been avoided. Ultimately, he said, Beltran was “clearly at fault.”
Though Patino said he does not agree with Beltran driving while intoxicated, he said Todd’s negligence and speed caused the crash.
“There were two police officers horsing around at midnight, playing cowboys and Indians,” Patino said.
Patino said that by clearing Todd of any wrongdoing in the crash, he believes the Sheriff’s Office has tried to sweep the case under the rug. He also said the FHP was unhappy with the handling of the investigation.
In November, FHP Lt. Doug Dodson said his agency stood by its speed estimate, despite the discrepancy with others.
“Our best witness is going to be the FHP,” Patino said. “They are going to tell you about the negligence of these police officers.”
The lawsuit states that Beltran’s death deprives Garza and the couple’s three children, Kassandra Beltran, Kyrah Beltran and Felix Beltran Jr., of his companionship, protection and support. The family has also incurred medical and funeral expenses.
The lawsuit demands a jury trial.
“The family is doing OK,” Patino said. “Obviously the kids are missing their father and Marina is missing him too. This case is about the kids and trying to right a wrong, I guess.”
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