DUI victim’s family suing Sarasota County Sheriff's Office for negligence

North Port SunDecember 28, 2012 

SARASOTA — If deputies hadn’t ordered a drunken man off the beach, one Sarasota family believes their loved one would be alive today.

The family of Donna Chen, 53, has filed a lawsuit against the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office for negligent actions in her death, according to the Mallard Law Firm of Sarasota.

On Jan. 7, Chen was jogging on the side of the road on Siesta Key near her home when she reportedly was hit by a drunken driver, Blake Talman, 23, and dragged to her death. Talman, along with two others, had been confronted by deputies earlier while drinking on the beach. The deputies allegedly instructed the men to “go home or go to jail.”

“We believe the actions of the deputies were negligent and careless by directing these gentlemen to drive home under the influence, and, unfortunately, at the cost of my client’s life,” said Damian Mallard, lead attorney on the case.

The Mallard Law Firm is seeking $200,000 in damages, the highest amount possible in a government-related lawsuit. The law firm can collect only 25 percent in fees.

“This is by no means about money. Mrs. Chen’s husband is a physician,” Mallard said. “He doesn’t need the money. The family wants the Sheriff’s Office to change the way they handle intoxicated people at the beach. Drinking is allowed at that beach. Deputies are creating a public-safety risk by telling (drunken) people to leave without knowing their means of travel. Deputies should be saying, ‘Take a cab, walk or get a friend’ to take you home.”

According to the suit, the deputies created a “zone of risk of injury” by directing an obviously intoxicated Talman, who was holding car keys, to leave the beach or be arrested. In addition, Talman reportedly failed to stop at an intersection, hit another car driven by an 18-year-old woman who sustained minor injuries, and was fleeing the scene of that accident when he lost control of his vehicle and struck Chen, killing her. After the collision, Talman’s car also struck landscaping, a street sign and several wooden poles at the entrance of St. Michael’s Archangel Catholic Church, as well as a telephone pole, before coming to a stop.

Chen’s dog Barney, who was running with her, also was struck and ran away from the scene. The injured Hungarian vizsla later was found swimming a half-mile offshore by a kayaker, who pulled him out of the water.

Talman and a 24-year-old male passenger both were injured and taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Talman later was arrested on charges of vehicular homicide, four counts of DUI with property damage, and leaving the scene of an accident. Freed on $118,000 bond, his next court date is Jan. 8.

The lawsuit is about “holding the Sheriff’s (Office) accountable for (its) actions,” Mallard said, adding the family “wants to ensure these types of tragic and avoidable incidents do not happen again.” Mallard said the entire incident was mishandled.

According to SCSO spokeswoman Susan Erwin, the court documents haven’t arrived yet. The Sheriff’s Office does not comment on pending litigation.

“As of today, we have not been served with a suit,” she said. “We are aware of a potential suit by the pre-suit filing letter we received.”

Mallard said the $200,000 can’t bring back Donna Chen.

“Two hundred thousand isn’t a good trade for a life, but it sends a message to the Sheriff’s Office of the much-needed changes in the process of handling beach complaints.”

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