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Pasco Tribune

Family awarded $14 million in 2007 fatal crash

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 05:32 PM
NEW PORT RICHEY -

Standing outside of Court 3C on the third floor of the West Pasco Judicial Center Tuesday night, Melanie and Michelle Bassi were relieved.

But they also wanted to be clear that this wasn't about money.

Four and a half years following the death of their mother, father and grandmother from a Christmas 2007 car wreck on U.S. 19 and Little Road in Hudson, a jury in a civil suit ruled in favor of her parents' and grandparents' estate, awarding more than $14 million.

The daughters of Denise and Gerard Bassi, which includes Melanie, Michelle and sister Jennifer Calabrese, were awarded $2.25 million each for the death of their mother and an additional $2.25 million each for the death of their father.

The estate of Raymond C. McWilliams was awarded $692,730.01. That sum includes the funeral cost of Linda McWilliams and the medical expenses of both Ray and Linda McWilliams. It also includes $397,500 for the loss of companionship and mental anguish of Ray McWilliams. Ray McWilliams was the lone survivor of the crash, but died in March 2011.

"I do feel a little relieved. It was a rough week," Melanie Bassi said. "It was hard. I wasn't expecting for this to be what it is. I'm glad it's over. I'm glad that it went in our favor. We are not happy with the way the criminal case went at all, so I'm, pleased with the way this has ended."

The driver of the truck that killed the sister's parents and grandmother, David Belniak, is serving a 12-year prison sentence after he pleaded guilty in August 2011 to three counts of driving under the influence-manslaughter and one count of DUI with serious bodily injury. Belniak, who countersued the family, bringing the case to national attention, was awarded nothing in his suit. He sought money for his medical bills, mental anguish and pain and suffering.

Belniak's suit also claimed Ray McWilliams, the driver of a Chevy Tahoe, pulled out from the left turn lane and into his path. The jury of four women and two men ruled McWilliams was not at fault. The jury deliberated for about five hours.

"We were only allowed to ask for money," Maureen Deskins, lawyer for the McWilliams estate, said. "But it was never about the money, it was about the validation. They just wanted someone to tell them what David Belniak did to them was wrong. That's why we're here. They never got that in a criminal case."

On Christmas in 2007, Ray McWilliams and his wife, Linda, sat in the front seat of their Tahoe, while their daughter, Denise Bassi, sat in the back seat with her husband, Gerard. The family was headed to Brooksville to celebrate Christmas with the McWilliams' other daughter, Georgette De Franco.

Belniak's Nissan Titan smashed into the rear of the Tahoe. An accident reconstruction expert testified the Tahoe, stopped at a red light on U.S. 19, was launched forward from zero to 40 mph in less than a second.

The impact killed Gerard Bassi, 51. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Denise Bassi, 50, died at Bayfront Medical Center that day during surgery.

Linda McWilliams, 66, suffered bleeding and swelling of the brain. On Jan. 2, 2008, she was taken off life support, dying 10 minutes later.

Ray McWilliams was the lone survivor, having the biceps in his left arm ripped from the bone and two tendons in that same shoulder severed.

Belniak's guilty plea came one week before a jury trial was convened and five months after Ray McWilliams died of an unrelated illness.

Belniak had traces of cocaine and Xanax in his system.

Witnesses testified Belniak sped up U.S. 19, nearly hitting other vehicles and at one point crossed the median into opposing traffic. One expert put his rate of speed as high as 84 miles per hour, while another for the defense said it was 53 mph.

"This (trial) started on Mom's birthday, so I think they wouldn't have it any other way," Michelle Bassi said as she began to cry. "The lawyers did such a good job and I'm really glad that our story was finally heard. You can't put a price on our parents. You can't."

The trial will move into the punitive awards phase Wednesday and damages against Belniak will be determined.


edaniels@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7928 Twitter: @EddieDTampaTrib

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