Baby whose spinal cord was severed in car crash wins record damages claim from Miami-Dade

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As Hurricane Matthew was barreling towards Florida on an October evening in 2016, a large Miami-Dade family squeezed into an Audi sedan to pick up some diapers and other baby products at a WalMart store.

At the same time, a Miami-Dade County K-9 unit police officer was dispatched to help track down a suspect who had jumped from a stolen car and was running through a residential neighborhood.

When the Audi and the police cruiser met head-on at the intersection of Northwest 57th Avenue and West Flagler Street, the traffic signal was not working, according to public records. The officer, Daniel Escarra, was driving at 75 mph before he hit his brakes and slammed into the Audi — a collision of such tremendous force that it severed the spinal cord of a 13-month-old girl sitting on her mother’s lap in the passenger seat.

Nearly six years later, Miami-Dade’s government must now pay the paraplegic girl $3.8 million in damages following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ approval Friday of a legislative claim bill allowing the county to compensate her beyond a customary $200,000 sovereign immunity cap. The amount of money, which covers past and future medical bills for Yeilyn Quiroz Otero, is the county’s largest claim bill to be paid in its history. Under state law, a quarter of that money, or $1 million, will go towards attorneys’ fees.

The legal dispute began in 2018 when Yeilyn and other family members sued the county and its police department. Her case was settled through court-ordered mediation three years later. Under the terms of the settlement, Miami-Dade’s government did not admit fault, but it agreed to pay the statutory cap of $200,000 and agreed not to contest a claim bill for $3.8 million.

Assistant County Attorney Richard Schevis stated as much at a hearing before a special master for the Florida Legislature. Frank Maderal, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney, laid out the evidence supporting damages for the young girl, who is now six years old.

“This will make a real difference for our client,” said Maderal, a partner with the Maderal Byrne law firm. “With these funds we hope she will be able to avoid being placed in a public nursing home when she turns 18 and will instead continue to receive in-home nursing so she can keep living with her family who loves her.”

He said the tragic accident turned into a “challenging case.”

“We never gave up,” Maderal told the Miami Herald Monday. “It was equal parts lawyering, politicking, and pleading for our client. In the end we set a record [for a county claim bill]. This case and this client will always have a special place for me.”

The girl’s guardian ad litem, Heather Hasandras, said the claim bill “is a life-changing settlement for Yeilyn.”

“This will allow her to have the best care for all her needs as a growing young child despite the traumatic event she went through,” Hasandras said.

Schevis, Miami-Dade County’s attorney, said he could not comment on the outcome of the case.

Details of the crash

The damages in Yeilyn’s case could have been potentially higher, but evidence surrounding her family’s outing to WalMart on Oct. 6, 2016, raised questions about whether the police officer was the only possible negligent party.

Senate Special Master Eva M. Davis found Miami-Dade County and Escarra, the officer, at fault for driving too fast southbound on Northwest 57th Avenue at West Flagler Street, exceeding the allowable speed limit under police policy as he raced to a crime scene.

“Because Officer Escarra was operating a police vehicle in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident and because the vehicle was owned by Miami-Dade County, the county is responsible for any wrongful acts, including negligence, committed by Officer Escarra,” Davis concluded.

But the special master also found that two adults in the 1998 Audi A4 — the car’s driver and the girl’s mother — might have been partly responsible for Yeilyn’s horrific injury.

Hector Meraz-Funez, who was driving the Audi home from WalMart that evening as Hurricane Matthew approached South Florida, did not have a valid state driver’s license and was not wearing a seat belt, according to the Miami-Dade Police Department. As he was driving eastbound on West Flagler Street, he tried to make a left turn onto Northwest 57th Avenue without yielding the right of way to the speeding police officer in the intersection, the Senate special master found.

Another significant factor: The Audi, a compact four-door sedan with five seats, was packed with the driver, two other adults and five children.

Yeilyn’s mother, Fany Otero, was riding in the right-front passenger seat holding Yeilyn in her lap. But Yeilyn was not restrained in a car seat, and the mother was not wearing a seat belt, according to police. Fany Otero’s sister, Maria Ortiz, sat behind the driver accompanied by four children. She was not wearing a seat belt, nor were any of the children properly secured in restraint devices. One child in the back seat was placed in a child safety seat, but it was not secured to the vehicle.

Not only was Yeilyn’s spinal cord severed, but the Audi’s driver, Meraz-Funez, suffered serious injuries that have left him in a vegetative state. “Since the accident,” the Senate special master said in her report, “he has remained unable to move and is unable to communicate.”