A former Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy who suffered burns over 60 percent of his body when a gas puddle ignited at a Marathon gas station two years ago is allowed to seek punitive damages from the corporate defendants in the lawsuit.
Circuit Court Judge Ruth Becker on Oct. 9 upheld Richard Ragali's right to seek punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages from defendants that include Shell Oil and Circle K Stores.
Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendants, while compensatory damages compensate the victim for bodily injury, pain and suffering, mental anguish, hospital bills and other losses, said Karen Terry, the attorney representing Ragali.
"Absent punitive damages, Circle K and Shell Oil could view Mr. Ragali's case as just another cost of doing business," Terry said in a press release about Becker's decision last week. "Instead, we can now be grateful that a judge has deemed it appropriate for the defendants to face potentially much greater penalties."
Punitive damages may be calculated as three times the compensatory damages as agreed to in a settlement or determined by a jury during a trial. No dollar amounts have been discussed in the case, and those figures will be decided by a jury, Terry said.
The next hearing is set for Wednesday, when a judge will hear the defendants' request to impose sanctions against Terry for speaking to the media and a request to amend the lawsuit, according to Terry's South Florida law firm of Searcy Denney.
Ragali was off duty and riding his motorcycle down the Keys with friends on Oct. 2, 2009, when he pulled into a Circle K in Marathon for gas.
His motorcycle slipped in a 5-gallon puddle of gas, which ignited and badly burned Ragali, who was airlifted to Miami and spent six weeks in a burn unit.
Court documents state that employees of the Circle K had received at least 11 complaints from customers about the gas leaking from pump 2. Instead of fixing the leak and temporarily closing the pump, employees repeatedly poured cat litter over the fuel spill, Terry said.
"There is clear and compelling need to pursue punitive damages in this case because it is an example -- a particularly sickening example -- of a defendant that valued profits over people," Terry said in a prepared statement. "Circle K and the Shell entities had a contractual relationship whereby Circle K was obliged to sell a specific volume of gasoline. Had it closed down one of the four pumps to make necessary repairs, it likely would have fallen behind schedule in its sales."
Terry told The Citizen on Thursday that Ragali remains at home and unable to return to his job as a deputy. He is in physical therapy and psychiatric therapy and is permanently disabled and disfigured, she said.
Shell Oil has denied liability in the accident, as it did not operate or control the gas station, according to court documents, which state "this defendant denies it is in any way responsible for the plaintiff's alleged injuries and damages and also denies it is liable to the plaintiff in any manner or amount whatsoever."
"If the plaintiff sustained any of the injuries and damages alleged, then these alleged injuries may have been caused directly and proximately by the plaintiff's failure to exercise due care to avoid injury," states court documents filed by Miami attorney Anthony Upshaw, who represents Shell Oil Co.