The judgment is the latest development in a strange saga involving a horrifying foot injury, an unsolved murder and a warehouse theft.
By Celia Ampel, Daily Business Review
A cargo ship is at the center of a bizarre legal drama involving a gruesome foot injury, a mysterious murder and the theft of 3,800 bags of black beans meant for Pollo Tropical.
Miami attorneys from Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman won a $3.3 million judgment Monday against the Glory Sky I and its owners and operators on behalf of a former crew member denied medical treatment for a minor foot injury that got so bad, one doctor recommended amputation. The defendants did not appear at the damages trial after a default liability judgment was entered.
Uninsured defendants Dantor Cargo Shipping Inc. and Fofo Transport Inc. don’t appear to have any significant assets besides the vessel, which is likely ”somewhere in Haiti,” Lipcon Margulies partner Michael Winkleman said—and former crew member Saul Alberto Acosta Varela might not be the only one seeking to arrest the ship.
Last year, a Miami-Dade judge ordered Dantor Cargo owner Rose Destin to turn over her company to food importer David Middleton to satisfy a $789,000 judgment for stealing black beans from his warehouse and reselling them in Haiti. Middleton also held a previous $300,000 judgment against Destin’s husband, Emile.
But Middleton was murdered the day before the Oct. 18, 2016, deadline to turn over the company. The murder investigation is still “active and ongoing,” according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Middleton’s estate has not moved to substitute into the lawsuit, said the businessman’s former attorney Scott Tuckman of Lavin Law Group in Miami. A lawyer for the estate, George Blow III of the Blow Law Firm in Live Oak, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Generally, collecting assets is a first-past-the-post endeavor, meaning plaintiffs competing for limited assets are in a race to the courthouse. Winkleman said it’s possible Middleton’s estate could go after the Glory Sky I, but the Lipcon Margulies firm is already working on it for Acosta.
“The difficulty in this case is really finding a collectable asset,” Winkleman said. “We’re making efforts to try to seize the vessel that Mr. Acosta was injured on. But this operation was basically a single-vessel operation going back and forth from Miami to Haiti, so these can be fly-by-night companies that come and go. The lowest concern on their totem pole is their crew members.”
The shipping company appeared to start the process of going out of business while Acosta was working as chief engineer on the ship, Winkleman said. The crew stopped receiving wages and at times, there wasn’t enough food to go around.
“It was a nightmare scenario,” he said. “I’m not sure what was going on.”
Acosta developed the diabetic ulcer on his foot because of the low food supply on the ship, the judge found. Acosta did not have diabetes when he underwent his pre-boarding physical. Because of the delay in medical care, the ulcer became necrotic.
Acosta was denied medical attention for his foot and given a plane ticket back to Honduras, where he lives, according to the lawsuit.
One doctor in Honduras recommended amputation, but a second opinion led Acosta to receive a different operation that left him with a deformed foot. The 56-year-old is now disabled and cannot work, U.S. District Judge Robert Scola of the Southern District of Florida found after the one-day bench trial. Winkleman worked on the case with colleagues Jason Margulies and Adria Notari.
Although Winkleman heard from Miami solo practitioner A. Platon Alexandrakis at one point in the case, Alexandrakis told the Daily Business Review he never “officially” represented the defendants.
Winkleman now turns his attention to the 220-foot-long, Tanzanian-flagged cargo vessel his firm hopes to use to fulfill the judgment.
“It’s such an awful thing that happened to Mr. Acosta, and a lot of lawyers might have turned down the case if there weren’t an insurance policy or a viable defendant to go after,” he said. “But we take a lot of pride in taking on the most awful cases and seeing what we can try to do to help people.”