It’s a bustling Monday evening at the corner of Orange Avenue and Central Boulevard. The silent Central Florida News 13 Jumbotron on the side of the Wells Fargo building lights up the night with worry and weather. Lawyers – and those who love them – wander by their Wall Street habitat. It’s rush hour, so the cars are maneuvering their respective routes in any way that they can.
Abbey Pfeiffer, 24, crosses Orange Avenue with trepidation. She waves. She frowns. She walks. “I wait for the little white walk guy,” she says as she makes it across the road. “I’m still a little traumatized.”
Pfeiffer has reason to be nervous. Nearly two years ago, she was the victim of a life-changing accident at this same intersection. It was nearly midnight on Sunday, March 14, 2010, when she stepped into Jimmy John’s on Orange Avenue for sandwiches. She wasn’t out drinking, she says, but getting ready for a romantic night in with her ex-boyfriend. He wanted a turkey sandwich, she opted for a B.L.T. A couple of sodas later and she was out the door.
At 11:54 p.m., she made her way across Orange to her blue Mini Cooper, which she had parked illegally on Central. She was in a rush to beat parking enforcement, but – as surveillance video from the busy intersection shows – she stepped purposefully, but with reasonable caution, into the three-lane street. She waited for the walk signal and stayed in the crosswalk, but just as she passed into the third lane, nearing her curb destination, she turned to face headlights and a vehicle struck her head-on. The vehicle was one of local entrepreneur Corey Lamb’s O-Cartz – glorified electric golf carts that seat five passengers, leased from Chrysler Financial Services (now TD Auto Finance) to cart tourists and partiers around downtown. Pfeiffer’s sandwiches and drinks flew into the air; people streamed out of bars; Pfeiffer crashed to the ground. “All I remember is that my head was in the windshield. [O-Cartz driver Andrew Campbell] comes around and everybody’s like, ‘Are you OK?’ and he starts yelling at me: ‘Why were you in the middle of the road?’” she says. “Then I was leaning against somebody’s Porsche and the owner showed up and said, ‘Get off my car. I got to move.’”
The problem is, she couldn’t. The incident had fractured the patella in Pfeiffer’s left knee. She initially refused an ambulance, fearing the cost and – as she was in shock – underestimating her injury.
Soon after, Pfeiffer’s prospective date for the evening showed up at the scene and took her to Orlando Regional Medical Center on South Orange Avenue (he also helped retrieve her car, which was impounded shortly after the accident).
That moment would be just the beginning of an ordeal involving two surgeries, two bouts of physical therapy, two celebrity lawyers, one entrepreneur with connections, Orlando city government and a nonprofit created to teach inner city kids the joys of skateboarding and surfing. Her accident happened at the crossroads of Orlando downtown life, and now her case is stuck at the intersection of Orlando’s downtown professional-incest machine.
Her medical bills quickly piled up, liens were issued against her, and Pfeiffer became an inconsolable mess of PTSD, pills and pain. Two years after her accident and her case is still open; nobody has paid for the accident but her, and she still has bills related to the accident outstanding. She relocated to Miami last year after convalescing at her mother’s Longwood home for months, and she now avoids phone calls from the 407 area code, to avoid bill collectors.
“I don’t understand how I am the only one feeling the negative effects of all these peoples’ bad choices,” she says. “And I didn’t do anything. I did absolutely nothing wrong, and I just keep getting run over.”
Orlando Police Department reports from the incident corroborate Pfeiffer’s version of events: “Vehicle was attempting to make a left-hand turn downtown from Central Boulevard onto Orange Avenue”; “Pedestrian was crossing on the crosswalk within the allocated time to cross the street”; “Vehicle, while making the turn, didn’t notice pedestrian, colliding with pedestrian”; “There was no damage to vehicle”; “Pedestrian complained of pain to the left-knee area, but did not wish medical attention”; “Vehicle was found at fault and cited for failure to yield right of way and no proof of insurance.”
The Orlando Police Department, Pfeiffer says, initially sided with Campbell, now 39, who had been working for O-Cartz for about a year. He claimed that she was at fault, but when police contacted their surveillance-camera operators, she says, it was clear she did nothing wrong. Campbell was given a ticket.
According to Pfeiffer, while she was still under a heavy dose of morphine at the hospital, attorney Dan Newlin – a former sheriff’s deputy, according to his ubiquitous television commercials – appeared at her bedside with some papers for her to sign. Newlin, who was working at the time for Morgan & Morgan, the region’s largest accident-attorney conglomerate, showed up at the request of a concerned family member who had a connection to him. (Newlin did not return phone calls or emails for this story.) She signed the documents, not really knowing what it was she was agreeing to. “He implied that this would be an open-and-shut case,” she recalls.
Why wouldn’t it be? Abbey Pfeiffer, a young, sober girl walking in the crosswalk gets nailed by an errant cab for hire, one that ostensibly had connections to the city. But peeling away first impressions, Newlin probably realized this case wasn’t going to be as easy as it appeared. Per federal law, the owner of the leased vehicle, Chrysler Financial Services, is not on the hook for the mistakes of lessors or hired drivers. Also, both of the alleged villains in this case, Lamb and Campbell, were uninsured, and therefore wouldn’t be easy to get money out of in a civil case. In the world of accident attorneys, says Morgan & Morgan firm founder John Morgan, that’s just business.
The cost for Pfeiffer’s four-day ORMC stay, including surgery on her knee, swelled to $44,216, though her insurance eventually covered all but $189 of that. She says that while under Newlin’s brief representation, it became clear that the car that hit her – a Chrysler Global Electric Motorcar, one of 10 leased by O-Cartz, according to Lamb – was uninsured. Documents produced by Allstate, which had been insuring Lamb’s company, L3 LLC, showed that the insurance had lapsed on July 31, 2009, more than seven months prior to the March 14 incident.
In just over a week, Newlin lost interest in Pfeiffer’s case, transferring it to another Morgan & Morgan attorney, Harran Udell. He notified Pfeiffer by letter that Udell would be taking over the case. (Newlin officially left the firm in October 2011.)
In the ensuing months, Udell attempted to build a reputable case. He requested the city’s video surveillance footage, insurance information for all involved parties and city records regarding the history of Lamb’s O-Cartz enterprise. A lawsuit naming Chrysler Financial Services, Lamb and Campbell was filed on June 22, 2010, claiming, among other things, that Pfeiffer “suffered bodily injury, including a permanent injury to the body as a whole, pain and suffering of both a physical and mental nature, disability, physical impairment, disfigurement, mental anguish, inconvenience, loss of capacity for enjoyment of life, aggravation of an existing condition, expense of hospitalization, medical and nursing care and treatment, loss of earnings, loss of ability to earn money and loss of ability to lead and enjoy a normal life.”
But Chrysler Financial Services would prove hard to pursue. Attorneys for the company filed a motion to dismiss the case soon after it was filed, claiming that the company was not responsible for any damages – so long as said damages weren’t caused by a malfunction of the vehicle – because of the federal Graves Amendment. Enacted in 2005, it states that in Florida (as well as many other states), “vicarious liability” laws are superseded by federal law, which holds that owners of leased vehicles are unaccountable for the acts of those who lease them. Graves was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in May 2011 when the court ruled in favor of Enterprise Rent-a-Car in the Vargas v. Enterprise Leasing Co. case, wherein a Florida woman’s rental car, driven by her son, ran into another car. Enterprise was held harmless.
At least Chrysler Financial Services responded. It took three months to serve Lamb with a copy of the lawsuit, and Campbell – who was no longer working for the company – was never served because a private investigation firm couldn’t locate his whereabouts. Udell requested an extension from the court for more time to contact all three named parties, and he was given until Dec. 22, 2010. A deposition for Lamb was scheduled for Feb. 1, 2011, but court documents indicate that he didn’t show up; Chrysler Financial Services’ attorneys dismissed the request for any depositions in light of their pending motion to dismiss. The case was falling apart.
Fortunately, Pfeiffer’s own vehicle was covered through Progressive Insurance, and she had $25,000 in uninsured motorist coverage. Her medical insurance was covered under her mother’s policy through United Healthcare, though United wouldn’t kick in payments until Pfeiffer’s Progressive coverage was exhausted.
Meanwhile, Pfeiffer spent four days a week at physical therapy at RDV Sportsplex, trying to get her knee back in working order. The initial surgery, which involved pins and wires to pull her knee back together, didn’t take, and before the end of 2010, she needed another surgery and another round of physical therapy. She also says she needed psychological therapy for the incident. She racked up more than $8,000 in physical therapy bills and nearly $65,000 in medical expenses for the first surgery alone (before insurance). She says the second surgery doubled that number, and between co-pays and prescriptions, she was deep in the hole.
“It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she says.
According to John Morgan – Udell did not return calls for this story – cases like Pfeiffer’s are not uncommon. He says in a state where 30 to 40 percent of drivers are uninsured, fair payoffs are often unlikely.
“People get mad,” he says. “They really shouldn’t be mad at us, they should be mad at the lawmakers. The Graves Amendment is a bad deal for our clients. Over the past 12 years in Florida, there’s been an increase in anti-consumer tort reform. It’s brutal.”
Morgan & Morgan takes in “almost 50,000 new cases a year,” Morgan says, and usually the firm knows within two months whether there is going to be a successful outcome. Asset checks are performed on uninsured motorists, and if there’s no money there, “you can’t get blood from a turnip. We don’t have debtors’ prisons in America anymore. People have had catastrophic injuries, and there is no insurance to help them.” In other words, if there’s no insurance, there’s no use pursuing the case.
Even the far-flung notion of suing the city for allowing O-Cartz to operate uninsured isn’t much of an option, he says. For one, the city caps its liabilities at $100,000. Lawyers are only allowed 25 percent of that, which is hardly worth it for the expenses they would incur.
“The better question to the city is why are you giving this guy goodies when he is responsible for something like this?” Morgan says, alluding to the fact that Lamb was in receipt of city grants for another business he operates, called Oopsy Scoopsy Frozen Yogurt.
Morgan has nothing but praise for Pfeiffer’s current attorney, and sympathizes with the no-win position he is in. “[Udell] is a very thorough lawyer,” he says. “He gets paid on what he produces. The thing about contingency work is that our tail is on [Pfeiffer’s] kite.”
In her down time, Pfeiffer became obsessively interested in the facts surrounding her case. She took to the Internet to check out its principals: Lamb, Campbell, Newlin, Morgan and even Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. She saw that Morgan was politically connected to Dyer and was part of a secret funding machine to bolster Dyer’s future political ambitions. She saw that Lamb sat on city boards and received city grants. She found a picture showing Campbell’s charity, the Getaboard Foundation, getting what appeared to be a giant cardboard check from the office of her former attorney, Dan Newlin. She broke down.
Corey Lamb started O-Cartz in January 2007 under the banner of his company L3 LLC. He was heralded by local media as trailblazer with an eye for the modern – at the time, a city spokeswoman told Orlando Weekly that it was “culture” – but O-Cartz was maligned by the city’s established pedicab brigade. The service offers $4 rides at 25 mph speeds for downtowners in search of a quick pick-up and drop-off downtown. Bikes were going to be things of the past.
The guff? A citywide pedicab ordinance came to bear in August 2007 requiring the previously unregulated carriage bicyclists – of which there are up to 100 in Orlando – to obtain city permits and carry $500,000 in liability insurance. Though city officials were initially confused about how to codify the new O-Cartz, they soon settled on vehicles for hire, in line with tow trucks and taxi cabs.
Meanwhile, Lamb was establishing himself in another venture, Oopsy Scoopsy, a shop that serves yogurt, for which he’d later get a license to serve beer and wine. Through the city’s Minority and Women Entrepreneur Business Assistance grant, Lamb – who coincidentally joined the volunteer, OPD-monitoring Orlando Citizens Police Review Board in late 2010 – sought $40,000 in city funding to help out his shop in June 2011, including a stipend to fund advertising on his own O-Cartz for the shop. It was a bold move, especially considering that MEBA grants don’t typically cover marketing to that extent and given that Oopsy Scoopsy was already selling beer and wine without a permit to do so, according to city documents from a June 1, 2011, MEBA advisory board meeting. City spokeswoman Heather Fagan says that L3 LLC has yet to be reimbursed for any of the $14,895 it was eventually approved to receive – applicants have to meet certain benchmarks, she says, and Lamb has yet to do so – although the shop did get more than $24,000 in rent abatement to cover costs of improvements in the city-owned building.
In a bizarre twist, Lamb’s restaurant is now part of a $3.5 million lawsuit against the city, along with nine other businesses, protesting the erection of a wall in front of their storefronts to promote the NBA All-Star Game this weekend. Lamb is more than 120 days late on his rent and owes the city nearly $10,300.
Reached by telephone, Lamb made little mention of that suit, or the lawsuit currently pending against him, for that matter.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says. “I don’t know anything about insurance.”
But Lamb can’t be completely unaware. According to court records, Lamb has been charged with numerous routine traffic infractions, felony cases in 1996 and 2006, and he’s been cited by the city for not carrying insurance.
The driver, Campbell, left his cruising stint with O-Cartz a couple of months after the Pfeiffer incident “for a better job, and I got tired of working nights,” he says.
That job was likely not the Getaboard charity, which he founded in 2003, but it’s hard to know if Campbell nets any income from his foundation at all. Getaboard hasn’t filed a tax return for public scrutiny since 2007, something Campbell attributes to the nonprofit’s extremely limited funding and the rules of nonprofit law. At least some of that funding came from Dan Newlin: “about $1,000,” confirms Campbell. Newlin’s firm is listed as a sponsor for the charity’s 2008 Lift Kids Hope! golf tournament on the Getaboard website.
Like his former boss, Campbell professes his innocence – if not ignorance – of the occurrences on and after March 14, 2010. According to Campbell, it was drizzling, all the streetlights were out, Pfeiffer was in all black, she was not in the crosswalk and he had a green arrow at the intersection.
“She wasn’t supposed to cross there anyway,” he says. “She had a chance to get medical assistance right then.”
Careful review of the video refutes much of what Campbell says. She is clearly visible in a black jacket, light jeans and black boots. The streetlights are on, and she has the “walk” signal indicating her right of way.
Campbell’s citation amounted to around $150, he struggles to remember, but Lamb reimbursed him.
It wasn’t the first time Campbell had been cited; according to court records, he has numerous charges of failing to produce proper driving documents and citations for several moving violations. Campbell attributes the infractions to his own relative poverty, saying the charges compounded, as they would for somebody without financial means to address them. He’s never hurt anyone; he’s never hit anyone – except Pfeiffer. But that, he says, comes with its own explanation.
“To be clear, she was probably drunk,” he says. “Why else would she be getting Jimmy John’s at midnight on a Sunday? Not to throw her under the bus or anything.”
Pfeiffer, for the record, insists that she was not drinking. Also, she was walking, so even if she was drinking, she wasn’t doing anything wrong.
Lamb’s citations are not a surprise to the city’s vehicle-for-hire supervisor, Craig Adler, who has had to keep up with Lamb’s business activities for years. According to city documents, Lamb has been cited at least three times for various offenses since Pfeiffer’s injury.
On March 24, 2010, just 10 days after the Pfeiffer accident, Lamb was given a notice of violation for failing to maintain insurance on four of his vehicles; the insurance had expired on Aug. 10, 2009. On Aug. 18, 2010, he was issued a violation for switching city permit decals between his vehicles; that violation also included the fact that a new insurance policy for the vehicle in question – permit number 5179, tag number I31-HRW – was not insured before March 26, 2010, when an insurance policy was renewed. On Dec. 9, 2011, Lamb was again issued a violation for canceled insurance, this time just 10 days after the O-Cart’s coverage had lapsed.
Adler says that at one of the resulting hearings that Lamb was required to attend in 2010, he brought an attorney along who convinced a new administrator that it was a misunderstanding – Lamb had worked out a payment plan with the insurance company – and, in response, Lamb was issued a warning.
According to Adler, the city currently works under a three-strike rule, but those three strikes have to be within the same year. Three violations in one year and the permit to operate is rescinded. Adler says that the department is working toward stricter rules, but it’s not clear how that would affect Lamb.
“From what I was told way back before I became supervisor, Corey Lamb came in with an O-Cart. There was no registration for it. They classified it as a shuttle van,” he says. “They were permitted as a shuttle; they shouldn’t have been.”
Actually, says Adler, they probably shouldn’t have been permitted at all. Lamb has since registered and permitted his vehicles as the city requires, but he’s done so in a haphazard way.
“One of my guys said, ‘Hey, I’m going to call the insurance company,’” he says. “[Lamb] had gotten insurance, but he claimed he was doing advertising and not vehicle for hire. Come March, his insurance is going to expire. Either he’s going to get insurance from another company or he’s not going to renew.”
Adler also admits that insurance companies aren’t always diligent about notifying the city when insurance policies are canceled. “A lot of times, that doesn’t happen,” he says.
But if there are departmental concerns about Lamb’s O-Cartz, you wouldn’t know it from talking to Mayor Buddy Dyer.
“We require insurance; they should tell us [if it’s canceled],” he says, referring to the fact that vehicle-for-hire insurance policies name the city as a party in the insurance policy and therefore the city should receive notice. “Whenever it’s dropped, if you have three violations in a year, the permit gets revoked. On this, I don’t know the specifics on whether he had insurance or didn’t have insurance.”
Dyer says that Campbell should probably be culpable for the incident; if not Campbell, then Lamb. The former has little or no money; the latter is funded by the city. It doesn’t help that Dyer is pictured on the O-Cartz website posing with Lamb next to an O-Cart in front of City Hall. But Dyer says that’s far from a sign of endorsement of Lamb’s business practices.
“I’d say it’s a stretch to say that I promoted [O-Cartz],” he says. “That’s like if I took a Mears taxi home from the airport and the driver took a picture of me, I was promoting for Mears.”
But what about Lamb and his L3 LLC taking advantage of city grant offers? Dyer claims that he had no idea that Oopsy Scoopsy and O-Cartz were connected, and even if he did, the criteria for receiving a MEBA grant would not directly be related to other businesses tied to the owner. He met the criteria; he qualified for the grant.
“I don’t think there’s anything that the city can do to do alter the situation,” Dyer says.
As it stands, Pfeiffer’s only payout from Morgan & Morgan has been the $25,000 in uninsured motorist coverage from Progressive. Factoring in attorney’s fees and various expenses, Pfeiffer was issued her first check in the amount of $5,223.51 on June 17, 2010. A second check in the amount of $6,905.32 followed on June 23, 2010. She lived on that for a year, she says. Her credit, she says, is ruined.
The case, according to emails to her from Udell, remains open, though he’s expecting her to look for another attorney for a second opinion. She has four years under the statute of limitations to pursue another civil lawsuit; two of them are already gone.
“You suffered a terrible injury, no doubt,” Udell wrote to her on Feb. 9. “There is no question in my mind that you have a life changing injury that I am sure is a daily reminder. We have provided to you everything we have done to locate insurance on Lamb/O-Cartz. Their policy lapsed from everything I have seen. I wish it were different.
“My suggestion with regard to another attorney is to get a second opinion, to maybe see something that we are missing. It does not help me to chase you away, but I am stuck. There are lots of smarter people out there than I.”
To some degree, attorney Glenn Klausman with the firm Jacobs & Goodman supports Udell’s view, saying that criminal charges against the driver – possibly a charge of reckless driving – could have been an option, but without intent or alcohol involved, there wouldn’t be any real consequences other than the suspension of Campbell’s driver’s license. His lack of liquid assets would prohibit much in the way of recovery. “In this particular case, it doesn’t sound like it would have made a whole lot of difference because of the Graves Amendment,” he says.
Pfeiffer says she bumped into Newlin at a Magic game over the holidays. It was a tense moment for her, but she took it upon herself to approach him. At first he didn’t remember her, but once reminded, she says, he was sheepish. He quickly introduced her to his girlfriend and then brushed her off.
Outside the Wall Street Cantina, Pfeiffer details her medical concerns now that she’s moved to Miami. She’s on her feet all day slinging drinks at Miami’s News Café, and recently the pain has been getting worse. She can’t wear high heels anymore, she laughs.
The surgeon who initially worked on her knee relocated to Texas. His apprentice, an ER orthopedic surgeon, is wary of touching her. In Miami, the response from the medical community has been no less disturbing.
“No doctor wants to see an open civil case,” she says. There would be court appearances, challenges, the possibility of not being paid. “Here, feel this,” she says, placing my hand on her knee. When she moves it, there’s the unmistakable feeling of crumpling cartilage in the grapefruit-sized joint. It feels like it hurts.
“[Udell] told me it just wasn’t worth it,” Pfeiffer says, resigned to her fate. “The way I see it, if O-Cartz were insured, I would have about $3 million and he would have $1 million. We’d both be happy.”
For his part, Dyer offers little in the way of comfort, calling Pfeiffer’s plight a “random case.”
“I really feel bad for the girl,” he says.