- By Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The fact that a girl died in a crash more than four hours after a Lyft driver dropped her off “superseded any liability that may even remotely be attributable” either to the ride-hailing company or the driver, a Palm Beach County judge has ruled.
Circuit Judge Judge Donald W. Hafele this week threw out the lawsuit by the family of 13-year-old Karenine St. Louis against Lyft and driver Leonardo Zambrano Dey.
Jimmy Aguirre, St. Louis’ now 18-year-old former boyfriend, remains as a defendant.
Lawyers say that late on the evening of July 8, the teens discussed a clandestine rendezvous at the boy’s Greenacres home, 8 miles from Karenine’s house in suburban Boynton Beach. The girl’s grandmother was asleep and her mother, a nurse who was working an overnight shift, thought she was home in her bed. The mother has said she never had heard of the boy before the crash.
The suit says Karenine and Jimmy, then 17, decided to call Lyft. It says Dey, the Lyft driver, picked up Karenine just after 1:10 a.m. and dropped her about 15 minutes later at the boy’s home. Dey, the lawsuit says, spoke no English and didn’t know Lyft barred transporting minors traveling alone.
About 4½ hours after the ride, the suit says, Jimmy discovered the balance was too low on his parents’ Lyft account, and he “had no option” but to drive her home.
State records show the boy had a Class E learner’s permit, which requires someone who’s at least 21 years old to be in the front seat when he drives. The state later suspended his license.
A Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office report the two were the only ones in the 2002 Ford F-150 when Aguirre lost control on a wet street at about 5:30 a.m and slammed into two trees on southbound Jog Road, south of Lantana Road. Jimmy suffered minor injuries.
The sheriff’s office has said it does not plan to file criminal charges. It has said its traffic investigation is not finished.
Hafele, in his order of dismissal, signed Tuesday, invoked a phrase that’s been prevalent in the case and is familiar to any law school student: “intervening cause.”
The judge noted that the family’s allegations themselves “establish that Aguirre’s negligent driving caused the crash” and called that an “intervening act.”
Lawyers for the girl have argued the crash would not have happened but for Lyft taking the girl to Aguirre’s home, in violation of its rules. They wanted a jury to decide.
But Hafele wrote that the girl’s death “was not a natural and foreseeable result of the Lyft ride.” He said the actions neither of Lyft nor the driver created a likelihood that the girl would get into the crash later, and “did not proximately cause” the girl’s death.
“We respectfully disagree with the judge’s decision, and we intend to appeal and explore all appellate remedies,” family lawyer Scott Fischer said Thursday morning. “We’re optimistic that at the end of the day justice can be served.”
And Kara Rockenbach, a top appeals lawyer who also represented Karenine’s parents, said, “As more and more people are turning to Lyft, Uber and other private transportation, the liability of the corporate owner of these entities for the conduct of its drivers is going to be a critical legal issue.”
She said she did not want to speak directly to the “intervening cause” issue because of the pending appeal.
Lyft spokesperson Alexandra LaManna declined to comment.
The judge dismissed the counts against Lyft and Dey “with prejudice,” meaning the family can’t refile them, arguing that “the core facts and legal theories would not be expected to change.”
Hafele had hinted at his move when the lawyers argued the concept at a hearing Dec. 11.
“How far did this go?” Hafele said at the time. “If this happened two days later, would there be any difference?”
Fischer responded, “If it was days later, we wouldn’t be here.”