$17.5 Million Awarded to Widow of Man Killed by Pinch A Penny Truck
A jury in Tampa, Florida has awarded over $17 million in damages to the widow of a man killed by a Pinch A Penny truck in 2020.
A six-member jury determined that the negligence of the Pinch a Penny franchise called South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services and its owner contributed to the crash that killed George Williams Gage III.
Gage, a 70-year-old retiree, was on his daily walk when he was struck by a Penny truck. Susan Gage, Gage’s widow and personal representative of his estate, was awarded $17 million in compensatory damages and an additional $505,000 in punitive damages.
“I think it accurately reflects the loss and the damage here,” said Bennie Lazzara, Jr., Susan Gage’s attorney. “George Gage was a very special man. He was active in his church, he was active in his community. This was a marriage of 46 years that in an instant was just wiped out.”
The verdict came after six days of testimony in Susan Gage’s lawsuit, which she filed six months after her husband’s death. The lawsuit named eight defendants, including Pinch A Penny as a franchisor, and claimed that they were all responsible for allowing pool service technician, Benjamin Ehas, to drive a company F-150 pickup truck under the influence of alcohol.
According to Bennie Lazzara, the case against Pinch a Penny as a franchisor and three other related parties named as defendants was settled out of court.
Burek, a registered agent of Burek, Inc., which operates as South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services, and Benjamin Ehas, chose to proceed to trial.
Ehas, then 32, was speeding down Bayshore Blvd. with a blood-alcohol level of 0.234. His blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit. The truck veered off the road near Julia St., plowed over a curb, across the grassy shoulder, and onto the sidewalk, colliding with Gage. Gage was thrown onto Hillsborough Bay and died soon after.
Ehas told Tampa police that he took Xanax before going to bed the night before the crash and by 11 am the next day he had smoked marijuana, drank a double shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, and taken a dose of Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction. Police obtained surveillance video and a receipt indicating that Ehas purchased the double shot minutes before at a liquor store on Gandy Blvd.
In exchange for a 12-year prison sentence, Ehas pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter in December 2020.
The lawsuit alleged that the crash could have been avoided if Eha’s employers had heeded warnings that he was using drugs and alcohol while on the job.
In 2019, a client complained about Eha’s behavior on Christmas Eve. The client contacted the franchise owners, John & Pauline Burek, and filed a complaint on the Pinch A Penny website. On a service call, Ehas was dispatched to the client’s residence and parked the Pinch A Penny pickup in the median in front of the man’s residence. Later that day the man’s wife noticed the truck in the same location and Ehas was slumped over in the driver’s seat with the engine running. The client walked out of the truck and banged on the hood to wake Ehas up. In the complaint, he mentioned that it was apparent that Ehas was under the influence.
The same client testified during the civil trial. Another client also testified. They filed a complaint with the company after discovering Ehas asleep in his truck while he was at her house for a service call, eight days prior.
“She was concerned that he was under the influence and she didn’t want him back on the property,” Lazzara said.
Lazzara stated that his bosses installed a GPS device on his service truck, a few days before the crash, due to concerns about his work performance. According to the GPS data, Ehas stopped at a liquor store after his shift on the morning of January 7, 2020, two days before the crash. Between the time the GPS was placed on the truck and the crash, no one at South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services checked it.
Lazzara explains that Tampa police retrieved the GPS data after the crash and it showed Ehas stopping at two liquor stores that same morning, one of which was the ABC location on Gandy. The company never required Ehas to submit to a drug and alcohol screening.
“Our position was they had ample opportunity to prevent this and they didn’t,” Lazzara says. He goes on to say that for Susan Gage, “there’s no joy”. “This is something that she felt she had to do, that George would want her to do,” he said. “The main thing she told me from the beginning was, ‘I just don’t want to see this happen to somebody else.’”
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