After 35 years at Immokalee Middle School, science teacher David Bowdler was taking time off, a one-year leave from his job, with the intent to return to teaching.
But a crash in 2008 dashed those hopes, when a driver smashed into his pickup truck, causing fractures to his neck and wrist. The motorist only had $25,000 in insurance coverage and paid Bowdler, but his injuries were extensive.
So Bowdler turned to his own insurer, seeking the $2 million policy limits under his underinsured motorist policy. State Farm refused and gave him $190,000.
Knowing he’d face years of pain management and future surgeries, Bowdler sued.
On Friday, following a four-day trial, a five-woman, one-man Lee Circuit jury deliberated four hours and awarded 58-year-old Bowdler of Fort Myers $3 million.
“I think when they realized the seriousness of the injuries, they were amazed,” said Bowdler, who showed jurors he’d worked hard, enduring serious pain, to rehabilitate himself. “I think it shows the jury system works and there is justice.”
Bowdler, 1983’s Collier County Teacher of the Year, can’t return to work and no longer can hook up his boat and go boating and fishing — or work in his yard.
“Now it’s too painful,” he said. “I only have a third left of my strength.”
His attorney, Randall Spivey of Fort Myers, said his client feels vindicated.
“Had State Farm paid him the limits of the coverage he purchased, there would have been no need for a trial,” Spivey said, adding that State Farm told jurors to award only $400,000. “The jury understands that these injuries will affect Mr. Bowdler for the rest of his life.”
“... Mr. Bowdler’s ability to deal with the pain from these injuries will get worse, not better, as he ages,” Spivey said, adding that Bowdler misses his active lifestyle and teaching. “He made a difference in the lives of thousands of children in Southwest Florida throughout his distinguished teaching career and he is very thankful that the jury rendered a fair and just verdict against State Farm.”
Jurors heard from Bowdler, three doctors who treated him, medical and economics experts and one of Bowdler’s colleagues, Russ Furtado, a former Massachusetts principal who now teaches English at the middle school.
Defense attorney Curtright Truitt, who could not be reached for comment, presented two experts, a vocational rehabilitationist, and a doctor in pain management.
The crash occurred Dec. 27, 2008, when Bowdler was heading west on 12th Street West in Lehigh Acres. Micah Bowman, 22, of Pensacola, was driving north on Douglas Avenue. Unfamiliar with the area, Bowman ran a stop sign and smashed into Bowdler’s pickup truck — never hitting his brakes.
Bowdler was taken to Lee Memorial Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a cervical facet fracture and a fractured left wrist. He had to undergo surgery for the cervical fracture in April 2009, when a doctor inserted a plate into his neck to stabilize it. His hand and arm were put in a cast.
Afterward, he couldn’t even tie his shoes or put on a shirt. He endured months of therapy for his hand and arms, while the neck injury caused nerve damage, intense pain and other problems. Therapy was painful, but improved the motion in his hand and arms.
“My arms froze up and my hand was like a claw,” Bowdler said this week. “I have a lot of pain. It’s really severe.”
Unlike some plaintiffs, who wear a neck brace or try to look injured, Bowdler looked healthy, showing jurors how hard he worked to regain his physical abilities.
The jury awarded him $144,900.55 for past medical expenses, $380,000 for future medical expenses, $95,000 for his lost earning ability, $500,000 for his past pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life, and $1.9 million for future pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.
Before trial, Spivey had filed a “civil remedy notice” with the state insurance department, giving State Farm 60 days to settle. By law, insurance companies owe a duty of good faith and fair dealing to those they insure. Under a bad faith claim, an unreasonable denial of benefits, they’re liable for more than the policy limits: the verdict, as well as Spivey’s legal fees and costs.
Bowdler now volunteers at a Fort Myers nursing home.
“They’re also in pain and I understand how they’re feeling,” Bowdler said. “Nobody visits some of them. And one of the nurses there is a former student of mine.”