Florida polo magnate faces vehicular homicide trial

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 05, 2012 7:54 PM
Florida polo magnate faces vehicular homicide trial

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A polo magnate is scheduled to go on trial on Tuesday on a vehicular homicide charge in Florida's tony Palm Beach County in a case that casts an unflattering spotlight on the very different lives of the country's wealthiest few.

John Goodman, 48, a Houston trust fund heir and founder of the International Polo Club Palm Beach, is accused of drunken driving in a February 2010 accident that killed a recent Orlando college engineering graduate on his way home to celebrate his sister's birthday.

The details were laid out in a probable cause affidavit for Goodman's arrest:

Driving his black Bentley GTC convertible after a night of drinking, Goodman plowed though a stop sign at 63 miles per hour and hit a Hyundai driven by 23-year-old Scott Wilson, the affidavit said. Goodman fled the scene on foot as Wilson, who was belted into his driver's seat, drowned in his car, which landed upside down in a roadside canal, the document said.

Down the road, Goodman borrowed a phone from a Lisa Pembleton, who Goodman found in a camper. Pembleton told police that Goodman's first call was to his girlfriend. Then, after asking Pembleton whether he appeared impaired and whether he should call for help, Goodman next called 9-1-1, the affidavit said.

Goodman, who is a major figure in the south Florida equestrian community, faces 30 years in prison if convicted on all charges. A spokesman for his lawyer, Roy Black, said Black was not commenting to the media on the case.

Meanwhile, the parents of Scott Wilson sued Goodman for wrongful death, and their lawsuit is set for trial on March 27, five days after the criminal trial is expected to end.

"They are devastated by the loss of their only son," said Scott Smith, a lawyer for William Wilson, the victim's father.

In October, the case took a bizarre turn when Goodman adopted his 42-year-old socialite girlfriend, Heather Ann Hutchins.

Media and legal analysts initially interpreted the adoption as a maneuver by Goodman to protect his assets, including his children's trust fund, from the victim's family. Goodman's hometown newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, pegs the value of the trust at $300 million.

However, the opposite appears to be the case. Smith said Judge Glenn Kelley previously had ruled that the trust fund for Goodman's children was off limits as a source of potential damages in the civil lawsuit. However, after Goodman adopted his girlfriend, Kelley agreed with the Wilson family that the girlfriend's share of the trust now can be considered by a jury in awarding punitive damages.

"The court cannot ignore reality or the practical impact of what Mr. Goodman has now done. The defendant has effectively diverted a significant portion of the assets of the children's trust to a person with whom he is intimately involved at a time when his personal assets are largely at risk in this case," Kelley wrote.

A probate judge still must rule on whether the adoption is legal or a sham, according to Kelley. In addition, a trustee for Goodman's children is contesting the adoption.

(Editing by Jane Sutton and Tim Gaynor)