By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
The discharge summary from HealthSouth noted: No functional change.
The Brodys persisted.
After he'd been transferred to Florida Club Care in Miami, Eric finally started to speak. They weren't words, exactly, but they sounded like they might be someday, and those nonsense syllables gave his parents hope. The family and staff continued with the coma stimulation program started at HealthSouth. They tickled his face with a feather, rang a bell, showed him pictures, played music, rubbed his arms, exercised his spastic limbs. And, as always, they talked and talked and talked.
Chuck and Sharon had taken a month of family leave to care for Eric, but by this time, they were both back at work full time. They'd drive down to Miami in shifts, trading off with Eric's sister, Michelle, and Eric's grandparents, so that somebody was always with their boy. Until now, Chuck's insurance had covered most of Eric's expenses, but the insurer had stopped paying when Eric didn't improve; now they were dependent on taxpayer-funded Children's Medical Services to foot the bills.
One afternoon in September, they got a call from Florida Club Care. An aide was on the line. "Say hello to your son," she told Chuck. And Chuck heard through the line a single, drawn-out, articulated sound: "Helloooooooooooo!" It was the first word Eric had spoken in six months.
From then on, their son continued to improve slowly. He started to eat soft foods, ice cream and yogurt. His brother, Howard, brought him a keyboard to encourage him to use his hands. Eric spelled his family's first names on a magnetized board. He started speech therapy, and his aides wheeled him to activities and religious services. His grandfather quizzed him with simple math games, like how to make change. He was transferred again, to Pinecrest in Delray Beach, where he learned to use utensils at mealtime, to shave, to bathe himself.
Eric celebrated his 19th birthday at Pinecrest with a few friends, coworkers from Sports Authority, and the family. Once, he got bored and made an escape attempt, wheeling himself out an unmanned door. By January, he was home. The Brodys fought yet another battle with the Broward School Board to arrange for homeschooling, and Eric completed his last two credits to earn a high school diploma. At his graduation in 1999, he received two standing ovations. But the Brodys' journey was a long way from over.
The night of Eric Brody's accident, BSO Deputy Christopher Thieman had left his girlfriend Stacy's house a few minutes later than he'd planned. He needed to make it from 94th Avenue in Sunrise to Eighth District Headquarters at 17300 Arvida Pkwy. in Weston, a ten-mile drive that normally takes about 20 minutes. But Thieman had to appear for roll call at 10:45. He had just 15 minutes to cover the distance.
Showing up late for roll call is a serious violation of BSO policy for a road patrolman, and Thieman's record with BSO was already less-than-perfect. He'd been involved in a previous accident four years before with his cruiser: He'd rear-ended a Dodge Caravan that had just completed a U-turn, sending the van into a spin and its occupant to the emergency room. An investigation into the Caravan crash determined that Thieman had been driving at least 78 miles per hour without his emergency lights, against BSO policy, but he was never issued a citation.
Thieman testified during a BSO professional compliance investigation later that he'd left Stacy's house on the night of March 3 somewhere around 10:30. At 10:36, Thieman hurtled along Oakland Park Boulevard in the westbound lane. Eric, traveling east on Oakland Park, turned left onto 117th Lane and passed in front of Thieman's cruiser. Thieman then did something inexplicable: He steered his speeding Crown Vic to the right, directing it toward the turning Concord. Thieman slammed his cruiser into Eric's Concord. On impact, the Concord skidded off the road across a grass shoulder, sideswiped a tree, and came to rest against a white wall that separated the neighborhood of Windward Isle from the highway. The passenger side of the Concord was crumpled inward, the front tire bent nearly parallel to the road. The windshield and rear taillight were smashed to pieces. When Thieman stumbled over, still dizzy and disoriented, Eric Brody was lying unconscious, partially upright next to the passenger side door, his legs beneath the steering wheel. Eric was wearing new black athletic shoes. The night was still and clear; little traffic was on the road. A neighbor leaned over the wall above with a cell phone, saying he'd called 911.
A few months after the accident, while Eric was still in a coma, Chuck and Sharon Brody went to lunch in downtown Fort Lauderdale with Lance Block, a 42-year-old civil trial lawyer specializing in catastrophic personal-injury cases and traffic-accident litigation. Block is the 2003 recipient of the Jon Krupnick Award for Perseverance by the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers for his ten-year fight on behalf of a disabled woman who had been sexually abused in a group home. The attorney's perseverance was a trait that would come in handy in the Brody case.
Block recommended that the Brodys request the policy limit from BSO's insurer, Ranger Insurance Co. At the time, he didn't know what the policy limit was. "It's up to you whether or not you want to accept it or go to trial," he told them. If it was a reasonable sum, he said, he'd recommend that they accept it. But there was a hitch: Florida's sovereign-immunity law protected public agencies like BSO from being sued for more than $200,000. For the Brodys to receive more than that amount from BSO's insurance policy, the Florida Legislature would have to pass a claims bill approving the payout. Sovereign-immunity law also protected Deputy Thieman from liability, since he had been acting within the scope of his employment. But Block thought the Brodys had an excellent case against BSO. The Legislature had approved many such claims, Block told them. It would be a fairly lengthy process, but he was confident.