A Horrible Fall, a $10 Million Judgment, and a Family's Search for Justice

Miguel Colareta did not let a slowly progressing neurological disorder keep him down, even if it did force him to start using a wheelchair.

For 10 years, he would rise early nearly every work day, wait for a paratransit company to take him to work, at Goodwill Industries on Commercial Boulevard, and then wait in the late afternoon for the van to give him a ride home.

“I liked the job and I felt useful because I was able to help people, able to help disabled people,” Colareta said. “Before I could do things on my own. I could go out, walk the dog and I was independent.”

Before April 16, 2012, that is – when Colareta backed his wheelchair onto the lift on an Allied Medical Transport paratransit van after it stopped outside the Goodwill offices at 6:28 that morning.

What he did not know was the device designed to prevent wheelchairs from rolling off the lift had been recalled weeks earlier for being defective, according to filings its manufacturer made with federal regulators.

The lift malfunctioned and he went crashing backward to the ground, causing traumatic brain injury and broken vertebrae, his lawsuit would allege.

Now, Colareta, 64, is quadriplegic, confined to the bed of a nursing home in Wilton Manors, his formerly productive life a distant memory.

“It changed everything,” said his wife of 37 years, Aida.

“He had no idea these wheelchair lifts weren’t being maintained properly, that nobody’s overseeing the maintenance,” said his attorney, Justin Leto. “He is just an unfortunate victim of a system that doesn’t have checks and balances.”

That system provides more than 440,000 trips a year in Broward County, which pays transportation companies about $14 million a year to do that job.

The family could not afford their own paratransit van, Aida Colareta said, so Broward County’s program was “the only choice we had.”

AMT was one of the companies used by Broward, but it recently lost its share of the work after it was underbid by a larger rival.

Now, the family is suing Broward County, claiming it did not properly oversee the contract with AMT, failing to regularly inspect the wheelchair lifts, as required by the manufacturer, their lawsuit claims.

“Broward County is ultimately responsible to ensure the paratransit system works properly,” Leto said. “The fact this vehicle failed and inspections were never done, that we believe is the responsibility of Broward County. They chose to privatize this industry.”

In its response to the lawsuit, the county argues it cannot be held responsible for AMT’s actions and it is seeking this week to add the company as a defendant. But in a recent court hearing, an assistant county attorney conceded that if the county is found to be liable, it would readily pay the family $300,000 – the limits of the county’s liability, unless the state legislature appropriates a larger payment specifically for this claim.

The Colaretas previously sued Braun Corporation, the manufacturer of the wheelchair lift, which had been recalled because of the defective safety barrier in March 2012, four weeks before the incident. “The defect manifests itself when the roll stop latches are no longer capable of restraining the roll stop to prevent wheelchair passengers from defeating or riding over the roll stop,” the company reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Braun reached a confidential settlement with the Colaretas and was dropped from the suit in May 2013.

The family also sued AMT, which had received the recall notice and begun replacing the parts in some vehicles two days before Colareta’s incident, according to records filed with the lawsuit. But AMT had not yet fixed the lift Colareta would use on April 16.

Asked what the incident says about the safety of paratransit clients in Broward, Wayne Rowe, AMT’s owner, told NBC 6 Investigators, “An accident is an accident and it will happen. However, it is how you proceed after an accident, and what you learn from an accident, what precautions you take before an accident, that makes you avoid having an accident.”

Unfortunately for Colareta, those precautions did not prevent what happened to him in April 2012.

AMT’s insurer was willing to pay the Colaretas $500,000 – the maximum allowed under the auto liability portion of AMT’s policy – and did so in April 2013.

But Leto sought more for the family.

In April 2014, a circuit judge signed a $10 million judgment against AMT, allowing the Colareta’s to seek more than the $500,000 insurance payment.

So the Colaretas are suing AMT’s insurance company in federal court, trying to prove it is entitled to money beyond the policy limits because, they claim, the company dealt with them in bad faith.

The company denies that, noting it made its $500,000 settlement offer less than two months after the claim was filed and that a judge has already ruled the claim falls under the business auto policy, which has a maximum limit of $500,000.

Still, the Colaretas continue to fight for more compensation, not to enrich themselves, they say, but to get the funds needed to move Miguel Colareta from the nursing home back to their house.

“We can’t be together like we used to be,” Aida Colareta said. “We want Miguel to be home with us and it’s very expensive to have him at home and he needs 24 hours care.”

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