Jury awards $17.5 million to widow of man killed by Bayshore Pinch A Penny truck


TAMPA — A Tampa jury has awarded more than $17 million in damages to the widow of a man killed by an out-of-control Pinch A Penny truck on Bayshore Boulevard two years ago.

A six-member jury ruled Wednesday that negligence on the part of a Pinch A Penny franchise called South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services and its owner contributed to the crash that killed George Williams Gage III as the financial executive the 70-year-old retired was absent in his daily walk.

The jury awarded Gage’s widow, Susan, his estate’s representative, $17 million in compensatory damages and an additional $505,000 in punitive damages, court records show.

“I think it accurately reflects the loss and damage here,” said Bennie Lazzara, Jr., Susan Gage’s attorney. “George Gage was a very special man. He was active in his church, he was active in his community. It was a 46-year marriage that in an instant was shattered.

It’s unclear if franchise owner John Burek plans to appeal. His attorney, Martin Stern, said Friday he was unable to comment on the story.

Related: Who is responsible for the Bayshore accident? Could Pinch A Penny be on the hook?

The verdict came after six days of testimony in a trial stemming from a lawsuit Susan Gage filed about six months after her husband’s death. The lawsuit named eight defendants, including Pinch A Penny as franchisor, and claimed they were all responsible for allowing pool service technician Benjamin Ehas to drive a company F-150 pickup truck under the influence of drugs and alcohol on January 9, 2020. .

Susan and George Gage attend the annual Stepping Out Gala for St. Joseph’s Hospitals Foundation in 2008.

[ AMY SCHERZER | Times (2008) ]

The case against Pinch A Penny as franchisor and three other related parties who were named as defendants was resolved out of court, Lazzara said. He declined to provide further details. A message left at Pinch A Penny’s Clearwater headquarters on Friday was not immediately returned.

Burek, as a registered agent for Burek, Inc., which does business as South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services, and Ehas, which has also been named as a defendant, have elected to go to trial. A lawyer listed for Ehas did not immediately return a message on Friday.

Ehas, 32 at the time, was speeding down Bayshore Boulevard with a blood alcohol level of .234 – nearly three times the legal limit – when the truck veered off the road near Julia Street, crossed a sidewalk, crossed the grassy shoulder and onto the sidewalk, where he slammed into Gage. He was dumped in Hillsborough Bay and died soon after.

Ehas told Tampa police that he took Xanax before bed the night before the crash and at 11 a.m. the next morning he also smoked marijuana, drank a double shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey and took a dose of Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction. Police obtained surveillance video and a receipt showing Ehas had purchased the Fireball double shot at a liquor store on Gandy Boulevard minutes before the crash, according to court records.

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Ehas pleaded guilty in December 2020 to impaired manslaughter in exchange for a 12-year prison sentence.

An unidentified investigator works the scene where a Pinch A Penny pickup truck struck George Gage while walking on the sidewalk along Bayshore Boulevard on January 9, 2020. Gage was thrown into Hillsborough Bay due to the impact and died at the scene.
An unidentified investigator works the scene where a Pinch A Penny pickup truck struck George Gage while walking on the sidewalk along Bayshore Boulevard on January 9, 2020. Gage was thrown into Hillsborough Bay due to the impact and died at the scene.
[ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

The accident could have been avoided if Ehas’s employers had heeded warnings that he was using drugs and alcohol on the job, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said a customer complained about Ehas’ behavior on Christmas Eve in 2019, calling franchise owners John and Pauline Burek and filing a grievance via the Pinch A Penny website. Ehas was dispatched to the client’s home on a service call and parked the Pinch A Penny pickup truck in the median in front of the man’s house. Later that afternoon, the man’s wife noticed the truck in the same location and Ehas collapsed in the driver’s seat while the engine was running.

The man walked over to the truck and banged on the hood to wake up Ehas. It was obvious that Ehas was under the influence, according to the lawsuit.

This client testified in the civil trial. So did another customer who also complained to the company after finding Ehas asleep in her truck while at her house for a service call eight days earlier, Lazzara said.

Benjamin Ehas is driven into a Tampa courtroom on January 15, 2020, six days after he lost control of a Pinch A Penny service truck on Bayshore Boulevard and struck George Gage as he walked on the sidewalk.
Benjamin Ehas is driven into a Tampa courtroom on January 15, 2020, six days after he lost control of a Pinch A Penny service truck on Bayshore Boulevard and struck George Gage as he walked on the sidewalk. [ Spectrum Bay News 9 ]

“She was worried he was under the influence and she didn’t want him back on the property,” Lazzara said.

Lazzara said due to concerns about Ehas’ work performance, his bosses placed a GPS device on his service truck days before the accident. GPS data showed that on the morning of Jan. 7, two days before the accident, Ehas stopped at a liquor store after starting his shift, Lazzara said. But testimonies revealed that no one at South Tampa Pool Supplies & Services checked the GPS data between when it was placed on the truck and the crash, Lazarra said.

Tampa police obtained GPS data after the crash and it showed Ehas stopped at two liquor stores that same morning, one of them at the ABC location on Gandy, said Lazzara.

He said the company never required Ehas to submit to drug and alcohol testing.

“Our position was that they had ample opportunity to prevent this and they did not,” he said.

For Susan Gage, “there is no joy” in the verdict, Lazzara said.

“It was something that she felt she had to do, that George would want her to do,” he said. “The main thing she said to me from the start was, ‘I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else. “”

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