February 24, 2024
A “Whopper” of a Verdict

Photo: Ginnis, Krathen & Zelnick

Attorney Miguel Amador (left), Richard Tulecki and his wife, Ann-Marie, and attorney H. Ross Zelnick (right). Reached by phone, Tulecki said he was "doing pretty good."

Law

A “Whopper” of a Verdict

Richard Tulecki was awarded nearly $8 million after he fell in a Burger King bathroom. It wasn't his first consequential experience in court.

Michael Fechter | 8/10/2023

Earlier this year when a Broward County jury awarded nearly $8 million to Richard Tulecki for a slip-and-fall accident in a Burger King restroom, his personal injury attorneys heralded the verdict as a triumph in the face of Florida’s newly enacted limits on tort lawsuits.

The plaintiff's law firm of Ginnis, Krathen & Zelnick described the verdict against franchise operator Seven Restaurants as one of the largest of its kind in Florida’s history and called out the Legislature for its tort bill. “This bill benefits corporate giants and insurance companies to the detriment of the citizens of Florida,” attorney H. Ross Zelnick said in a news release after the jury’s decision. “A verdict of this magnitude sends a strong message that corporate greed will not be tolerated in Broward County. Our client left the courthouse with confidence in the civil justice system and feels that his voice was heard.” The press release called it a “whopper” verdict.

The award generated headlines around the world. The case is a window into Florida’s personal injury landscape, where businesses, plaintiffs and attorneys — and a constellation of medical and insurance providers that are part of the complex system — turn seemingly minor incidents into multi-million dollar battles.

The May verdict wasn’t Tulecki’s only consequential experience in court, records show.

In mid-May 2019, a couple of months before the incident at the Burger King, Tulecki pleaded no contest in Broward County Circuit Court to two misdemeanor counts of petit theft on what had been an original felony arrest on insurance fraud charges, ending a case that began in 2015 with a collision between a U-Haul truck and his truck in Pompano Beach. Tulecki worked in the marine industry and had training in the skilled construction trades.

In an affidavit, the state Department of Financial Services’ Bureau of Insurance Fraud alleged Tulecki staged the collision and committed insurance fraud, both second-degree felonies. The affidavit says Tulecki wanted money to get his truck repaired or replaced and got another person — a “cooperating witness,” in the affidavit — to bang into Tulecki’s truck with the U-Haul. Tulecki “feigned” injuries, the affidavit says, and retained an attorney. Progressive, the no-fault carrier for Tulecki, paid $5,113. Progressive also was billed $13,605 for medical care but Tulecki’s out-of-state policy didn’t apply and Progressive turned those charges away, an affidavit says.

Represented in the criminal case by a public defender, Tulecki didn’t admit guilt in his plea but didn’t contest the petit theft charges. He was put on probation for 24 months and ordered to pay restitution. Adjudication of guilt was withheld, meaning he wasn’t formally convicted.

“The two matters are completely unrelated,” said Miguel Amador, one of Tulecki’s attorneys in the Burger King case, in a statement to Florida Trend. The restaurant’s attorney, Mary Thomas of Tampa, didn’t respond to requests for comment, but a deposition of Tulecki filed in the civil case shows attorneys were aware of the earlier fraud allegation. In the deposition, Tulecki alternately said he didn’t remember the criminal case well and that the allegations were untrue.

Also in 2019, in March, he stayed at a Best Western hotel in St. Augustine, only to wake with bites and welts across his body from bed bugs, according to a lawsuit he filed against the hotel in late 2020. He was represented by Ginnis, Krathen & Zelnick in that lawsuit as well; it was later settled for an undisclosed sum.

Four months after the hotel stay, Tulecki in July 2019 was alone in a bathroom at a Burger King in Hollywood when he slipped and fell on a wet “foreign substance.” The then 45-year-old visited an emergency room later that day, listing an attorney as the guarantor of his bill, court records say. Tulecki eventually had back surgery and he was prescribed opioid painkillers. He developed constipation from the drugs and suffered a perforated colon after he used an over-the-counter enema, court records say. He filed suit against Burger King in 2021. He said the restaurant staff failed to follow cleaning procedures and the fall had led to severe, life-altering medical conditions and pain. The firm says the insurer offered “only” $200,000 to settle.

The jury awarded Tulecki $693,345 in medical expenses; $2,500 in future medical expenses; $995,760 for past pain and suffering; $2,768,160 in future pain and suffering; $350,000 in past lost wages and $3 million for future lost earnings.

Seven Restaurants was seeking to throw out the verdict. One objection: The $3 million awarded for lost future earnings to Tulecki, now 49, is “clearly excessive,” defense attorney Thomas wrote in a court filing. It amounts to his $70,000 annual income pre-injury continuing for nearly 43 years until he is 91. She argued the award should be reduced to lost earnings until a retirement age of 65. In July, the trial judge denied the motion to set aside the award.

Tags: Government/Politics & Law, Feature

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