Settlement doesn't dull the pain
By Eddie Daniels | Tribune StaffNEW PORT RICHEY - A sense of frustration grew over Georgette DeFranco on Wednesday morning.
Published: June 16, 2012
Published: June 16, 2012
She began to think of her mother and stepdad, Linda and Ray McWilliams. The thought shifted to her sister, Denise Bassi, and her sister's husband, Gerard Bassi.
Then she focused on David Belniak.
"We gave him a gift. He will get out of jail younger than I am now, and then he went after us and attacked us and said it was Ray's fault," DeFranco, 48, said. "That just hit us all hard. He's still going to be young when he gets out. They're all dead. It's just not fair."
Belniak, 38, of Spring Hill, is serving a 12-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to a Hudson car wreck that killed Linda McWilliams, Denise Bassi, and her husband, Gerard. Ray McWilliams was seriously injured in the crash and died of an unrelated illness in March 2011.
Belniak's guilty plea in August to three counts of driving under the influence-manslaughter and one count of DUI with serious bodily injury came days before the criminal case was to begin.
At Tuesday's conclusion of the civil trial, which began June 4, Belniak was found negligent in the death of three of DeFranco's family members this week. A jury awarded $14 million to the McWilliams and Bassi families Tuesday night after five hours of deliberations.
Belniak, who countersued the family in December, bringing the case to national attention, was awarded nothing.
He sought money for his medical bills, mental anguish and pain and suffering. His suit claimed Ray McWilliams was partly to blame for the accident.
The jury found no negligence in McWilliams' driving.
"I know Mr. Belniak has been painted as this awful, awful person, but he thinks about this every day," his sister and attorney, Debra Toumey, said. "I said there's really no winners in this case."
Belniak was free on bail before he accepted the guilty plea in August.
McWilliams' estate lawyer Maureen Deskins said he likely will serve 10 of the 12 years given to him. He will no longer have a driver's license and will serve 10 years of probation after his release.
Wednesday morning during the punitive phase of the civil suit against Belniak, lawyers for the estate of Raymond C. McWilliams and Belniak — moments after opening statements wrapped up — agreed to a $1 million settlement.
Getting that money won't be easy.
"Now that we have that, it will be our responsibility to pursue collection of that judgment," Deskins said.
A case is pending in Hernando County to go after property Belniak sold to his parents, in what attorneys say is an effort to shield his assets.
In Deskins' opening remarks, she didn't ask for a dollar amount but was clear she wanted the maximum the jury saw fit to award.
"The sole purpose of punitive damages is to punish Mr. Belniak for his unlawful conduct in this case," Deskins said to the jury prior to the settlement. "It is also to deter him from ever doing this again and it is to deter others in the community. It's to send a message to others in the community, who might have thought of getting behind the wheel of a car in an impaired state. They better not do it, because if they do there's going to be extraordinarily severe consequences."
In her opening statement to the jury, Deskins detailed the six properties Belniak owned in Hernando County. She said at the time of the accident, Belniak's assets were in the $2 million range. Deskins said a witness was to testify Wednesday that Belniak said one week after the accident he had to get rid of the properties in his name to keep them from being taken in a civil suit.
Banking records the McWilliams estate obtained also showed three checking accounts belonging to Belniak. Deskins said they were drained.
This wasn't the first traffic incident involving Belniak.
Between 1990 and 2007, Beniak was ticketed eight times for speeding and three times for failing to obey a traffic signal, among other citations.
During an August 2003 DUI arrest, a one-gallon jug and a plastic bottle filled with gamma-hydroxybutyrate, also known as GHB, was found in Belniak's Mustang. That resulted in Belniak being sentenced to one year of house arrest and two years of drug-offender probation. On Nov. 25, 2007, a petition to release Belniak from his drug offender probation, which required weekly drug tests, was granted.
Christmas afternoon in 2007, Ray McWilliams, DeFranco's stepfather, was driving his Chevy Tahoe. He was stopped on Northbound U.S. 19 at Little Road.
In the passenger seat was McWilliams' wife, Linda. Denise Bassi was seated behind Ray McWilliams in the back seat. Gerard Bassi, Denise's husband, was to her right, behind Linda.
Witnesses in the almost two-week-long civil trial said Belniak raced up U.S. 19, nearly hitting a jeep and forcing a man on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle — his wife on the back to pull over.
The Nissan Titan then plowed into the McWilliams' Tahoe, delivering so much force that accident-reconstruction expert John Murdoch said the Tahoe went from zero to 40 mph in less than one second.
Murdoch estimates Belniak was driving 84 mph.
Gerard Bassi, 51, died inside the Tahoe. Denise Bassi, 50, died at Bayfront Medical Center that day during surgery. Linda McWilliams, 66, suffered bleeding and swelling of the brain. On Jan. 2, 2008, she was taken off life support, dying 10 minutes later.
Ray McWilliams was the lone survivor of the crash, having the biceps in his left arm ripped from the bone and two tendons in that same shoulder severed. He died in March 2011 of an unrelated illness.
Traces of cocaine and Xanax were found in Belniak's system.
"It infuriated all of us," DeFranco said of the countersuit. "Because we all knew that Ray didn't do this. From the very first day, we knew that Ray didn't do this and it just infuriated (us) that (Belniak) just wouldn't accept the responsibility. He made us sit through this. He made us sit for 31/2 years before he went to jail. He should have manned up; he should have taken it. He made us go through all that and at the last minute he took a plea."