Left to right: Carolina Corona, Ricardo M. Corona, Ricardo R. Corona and Nina Tarafa
It seemed like a leap: holding a city liable for a civil rights violation after a man fleeing from police crashed his car into another motorist. The city, after all, at first glance seemed to have nothing to do with the accident.
But that’s what the plaintiffs attorneys from Corona Law Firm argued in a cause of action under the U.S. Constitution, relying on legal precedent that gives bystanders grounds to sue if police actions cause injuries.
It was a difficult tactic that required the attorneys to cross a high threshold to defeat safeguards that protect on-duty law enforcement officers from most litigation and prove the police action was so heinous it “shocks the conscience.”
In the end, the Fort Lauderdale lawyers persuaded a federal jury to award $1 million to the man left “barely clinging to life” inside a small pickup truck smashed so violently its rear axle flew 20 feet into a tree.
“It looked like scrap metal,” Ricardo M. Corona said of his client’s vehicle. “It didn’t look like a truck at all.”
The Corona Firm represented 58-year-old construction foreman Juan L. Perez, who was injured in an early-morning crash just outside the Sweetwater city limits in January 2012. Attorneys Ricardo R. Corona, Carolina Corona, Ricardo M. Corona and Nina Tarafa also brought a claim for loss of consortium for Perez’s wife, Maria A. Posada.
Perez was on his way to work at about 5:30 a.m. when he drove past what looked like a routine traffic stop involving a Mercedes-Benz near Southwest Eighth Street and 109th Avenue. He kept going but didn’t leave it behind.
Felipe Torrealba, who had been stopped by police, fled, prompting police to fire dozens of shots into the escaping vehicle.
Perez’s attorneys claimed police illegally detained Torrealba and harassed him for more than 20 minutes. They cited Torrealba’s account of police ordering him and his passenger out of the car, asking them to put their hands on the vehicle, searching them and posing questions about Torrealba’s ability to afford the $100,000 Mercedes. They say Torrealba was the subject of an arrest warrant, but police didn’t know it at the time.
As officers pressed for details, Torrealba jumped into the Mercedes and attempted to flee. Police fired 24 rounds at him, hitting the car with 10 bullets — one of which struck Torrealba in the head, ricocheted on a bone and exited through his ear.
“Not only do they shoot at him, the other officer — a third officer that was in his car — starts chasing him in a high-speed chase as he’s driving away,” Ricardo R. Corona said. “You don’t shoot into a moving vehicle.”
Perez’s attorneys said the police officers at the scene violated Torrealba’s civil rights and multiple department policies — causing a series of events that almost ended Perez’s life.
“Opposing counsel argued there was no constitutional violation and that it wasn’t the police’s action that caused the injury but the man fleeing,” said Carolina Corona. “The jury did not buy that.”
The case was the latest allegation of wrongdoing against Sweetwater police and city officials, who have been accused of strong-arming vulnerable residents and illegally towing their vehicles through a company linked to former Mayor Manuel Maroño. At least three Sweetwater police officers have been arrested on racketeering and fraud charges. In 2014, U.S. District Judge William Zloch sentenced Maroño to 40 months in federal prison for accepting bribes.
“We had a great case against the corrupt city of Sweetwater,” Ricardo R. Corona Sr. said of Perez’s claim. “It’s very difficult to get to a verdict in those kinds of cases,” he said. “The majority are disposed through summary judgment without getting to a jury.”
After a trial before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga, jurors found Torrealba posed no immediate threat of serious physical harm to the police or others during the traffic stop.
Michael Ross Piper and Christopher J. Stearns Jr. of Johnson Anselmo Murdoch Burke Piper & Hochman in Fort Lauderdale represented Sweetwater. They declined to comment, citing a pending appeal.
Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez said the city undertook a major overhaul in the wake of previous scandals, implementing new rules and regulations for the police department under Chief Placido Diaz.
“This incident occurred in 2012, two administrations ago,” Lopez wrote in a statement. “I can assure you that every police officer in our city has gone through every single piece of training from handguns, tasers, CPR and any other aspect of training that deals with law enforcement so that incidents like this one do not occur again in the city of Sweetwater.”
A related suit against the Sweetwater Police Department is pending from the same incident.
Case: Juan Perez v. City of Sweetwater
Case no.: 16-cv-24267
Description: Civil rights
Filing date: Dec. 22, 2015
Verdict date: Sept. 25, 2017
Judge: U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga
Plaintiffs attorneys: Ricardo R. Corona, Carolina Corona, Ricardo M. Corona and Nina Tarafa, Corona Law Firm, Fort Lauderdale
Defense attorneys: Christopher J. Stearns Jr. and Michael Ross Piper, Johnson, Anselmo, Murdoch, Burke, Piper & Hochman, Fort Lauderdale
Verdict amount: $1 million