Family Awarded $45 Mil. For Crash

LAKELAND – Thursday, July 26, 2007 | The family of a 9-year-old girl killed in a February 2006 crash in Lakeland was awarded nearly $45 million Wednesday in a wrongful death and personal injury case.

Of the $44.9 million verdict, nearly $40 million was awarded for personal injury, thought to be the largest such award ever in Polk County.

Last year Morgan Bryant, 9, and Brittany Hooten, 8, died after the pickup they were riding in was struck by a large truck.

Carla Bryant, Morgan’s mother, was driving the pickup and was seriously injured in the accident.

Included in the award was a $5.7 million verdict for Morgan Bryant’s wrongful death, according to court documents.

Carla Bryant, who was two months pregnant at the time of the accident, was awarded nearly $40 million because she suffered permanent injuries and mental anguish.

The fetus didn’t survive and Bryant suffered brain damage, Winter Haven lawyer Lance Holden, one of the lawyers representing the Bryant family, said Wednesday.

“I can’t remember a verdict close to $40 million in a personal injury case,” said Lou Williams, a longtime Polk County lawyer who has practiced law since 1969.

In April 2006, less than two months after the deadly crash, the Bryant family filed a lawsuit against John Robert Mitchell, the driver of the truck that crashed into Bryant’s pickup.

Progressive Auto Insurance, Mitchell’s insurance company, retained Tampa lawyer Dan Mitchell to represent the trucker in the lawsuit. Dan Mitchell and John Robert Mitchell are not related, Tampa lawyer Web Brennan said.

Holden and Brennan represented the Bryant family.

After several months of presenting their cases in a “full-blown fighting-to-the-death trial,” the jury took 2<0x200A> 1/2 hours to decide on the multi-million dollar verdict, Brennan said.

The initial judgments for the Bryants were higher than what the family was awarded. Because the jury decided Carla Bryant was also negligent in the crash, the family was awarded a lesser amount, according to court documents.

The judgment for the wrongful death case was originally $9.5 million but was reduced to $5.7 million because Bryant was deemed 40 percent negligent in the crash, Brennan said.

In the personal injury case, the $52.2 million judgment was reduced to $39,133,791 because Carla Bryant was 25 percent negligent in that case.

The insurance company has 30 days to appeal, Holden said.

As Mitchell’s insurance carrier, Progressive is supposed to protect and act in the best interest of Mitchell in resolving the lawsuit, Holden said.

But Holden said Progressive didn’t act in Mitchell’s best interest and instead decided to take the case to trial.

“We gave them an opportunity to resolve this lawsuit a year ago,” Holden said. “We’ve had two court-ordered mediations.”

Lawyer Dan Mitchell could not be reached for comment about the case Wednesday.

“Progressive made their choice and the Polk County jury made theirs,” Holden said.

On Feb. 20, 2006, Bryant, then 36, was driving her 1998 Ford pickup north on State Road 33 when Mitchell’s commercial-sized truck, heading south on SR 33, made a left turn onto Combee Road and drove into her path, Lakeland police have said.

Bryant, Morgan and Brittany weren’t wearing seat belts, police have said.

The two girls, who were said to be as close as two peas in a pod, died that day.

Carla Bryant was hospitalized for several months and is now receiving home health care services, Web Brennan said.

Mitchell wasn’t injured in the crash.

Brennan, along with lawyer Steve Brooks, handled Brittany Hooten’s wrongful death case. He said the family settled with Progressive out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.