OKEECHOBEE — After the death of their daughter in a 2013 automobile crash caused by an Okeechobee County Sheriff’s deputy, a local couple sought financial compensation in the courts — and won.
Hilda Medrano was 21 years old on Dec. 1, 2013 when the crash occurred. She and two friends decided to run to McDonalds at about 2 a.m. As they turned off of State Road 70 to go into the parking lot, the car they were in was struck by Deputy Joseph Gracie. Gracie was responding to assist in a domestic dispute.
Medrano, who was a passenger in the vehicle, was killed along with the driver, Elizabeth Arellano Rentaria. A backseat passenger, Isamar Sanchez Jaimes, was critically injured. Gracie was also severely injured in the accident and spent some time in a medically induced coma. After his release from the hospital, Gracie retired from the force due to his injuries and moved out of state.
A Florida Highway Patrol investigation was concluded in September 2014 determining Gracie was at fault. FHP Trooper Corporal Mark E. Zook’s report states Gracie, who was on his way to back-up another deputy, was traveling at an estimated speed of 87 mph at impact. He did not have his emergency lights illuminated and the siren on his 2000 Ford Crown Victoria patrol unit was not sounding.
In the report Zook states Gracie, along with fellow OCSO deputies William Jolly and Matt Crawford were at the Race Trac convenience store/gas station, 1596 S.R. 70 E. when a sheriff’s office dispatcher issued a call at 2:06 a.m. of a domestic violence situation in which there was an armed subject.
OCSO Deputy Megan Holroyd was the initial responder.
Gracie, followed by deputies Jolly and Crawford, got into their patrol units and began driving west on State Road 70 in order to back up Holroyd.
When they neared the McDonald’s restaurant, at 401 Park St., around 2:08 a.m. they saw Renteria, who was eastbound on S.R. 70 East and in the inside lane. As the OCSO units neared the restaurant Renteria attempted a left-hand turn into the Mc-Donald’s parking lot.
Zook stated Renteria’s car turned directly into the path of Gracie who, by this point was hitting his brakes. But, it was too late.
The FHP report stated the Race Trac store is about .8 miles, or 4,224 feet, from the crash scene. It took Grace about :43 seconds to travel that distance. He drove at an average speed of 67 mph. About :1 second before impact Gracie was traveling at a speed of 94 mph, stated Zook. According to the report, at one point Gracie reached a maximum speed of 96 mph. The posted speed limit in this area is 35 mph.
Zook went on to state in his report that a blood alcohol test done on blood drawn from Renteria came back negative for alcohol or drugs.
According to an earlier FHP release, none of the victims were wearing seat belts at the time of the crash.
“Based on my investigation and the physical evidence, it was determined that the cause of the crash was due to D-2’s (Gracie) speed even though V01 (Renteria) turned in front of V02 (Gracie),” stated Cpl. Zook.
Gracie was not criminally charged but was issued three citations — two for careless driving causing death, and one for failing to utilize the emergency equipment on his patrol unit to warn other traffic.
The families of Renteria and Jaimes reached a settlement for damages and have been paid by the OCSO.
In April of 2014, Medrano’s family sued the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office for negligence, negligent training and supervision and dangerous instrumentality although the negligent training and supervision count was later dropped. In August of 2018, the sheriff’s office was found culpable after a four-day jury trial and damages of $5 million were awarded to the family. The OCSO made a motion for a new trial based, in part,on the fact the victims were not wearing seat belts at the time of the accident, but the defense was prohibited from introducing that evidence. The motion for a new trial was denied. In November of 2018, the OCSO appealed the court’s decision.
Recently, Senator Tina Polsky introduced a bill to the Florida Senate entitled "An act for the relief of Ricardo Medrano-Arzate and Eva Chavez-Medrano, as personal representatives of Hilda Medrano, by the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office; providing for an appropriation to compensate them for the damages awarded in connection with the death of their daughter as a result of the negligence of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office; providing a limitation on the payment of fees; providing an effective date."
According to Sheriff Noel E. Stephen, who was a major at the time of the accident, the reason for the bill is that there is a statutory limit of $200,000 in place specifically for this type of lawsuit. If a plaintiff receives a judgment exceeding the $200,000, they must get a claims bill filed and approved by the house and the senate. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a pot of money to pull from,” he said. “I go to the county commission and ask for my budget every year. I operate on that amount of money with the anticipation that $0 gets returned.”
On Feb. 25, the case will go before a Special Master to determine whether the OCSO will be held responsible for the $5 million payment.
During their Feb. 11 meeting, the Okeechobee County Commissioners discussed the bill. Commissioner Terry Burroughs said “Due to the fact the sheriff’s office is not a taxing authority, this could put him at a severe disadvantage, bankrupting the sheriff’s office.” The county is not implicated in the lawsuit and will not be liable for the money, but they are making every effort to make sure all information is put before the special master.
County attorney, Wade Vose, said there is a $200,000 cap for sovereign immunity, but if someone has a claim over that amount, they can go to the legislature. The legislature is allowed to waive the sovereign immunity. All they can do is wait to see how this bill proceeds through the process. “Sometimes, they are just a non-starter, and sometimes they aren’t.” If they find in favor of the plaintiffs, the sheriff’s office would have to pay, and it would bankrupt the sheriff’s office.
Eric Kopp contributed to this story.