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Monday, December 04, 2023

Families of UF students killed on West University Avenue filed lawsuits for wrongful death

Maggie Paxton’s father and Sophia Lambert's father filed the suits within a day of each other

<p>Pedestrians cross West University Avenue on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, near a memorial at the site of a car crash that killed Sophia Lambert, a UF student, in January.</p><p></p>

Pedestrians cross West University Avenue on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, near a memorial at the site of a car crash that killed Sophia Lambert, a UF student, in January.

The families of Sophia Lambert and Maggie Paxton — two UF students who died in pedestrian crashes on West University Avenue about a month apart — filed wrongful death lawsuits against the drivers and car owners on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Andrew Yaffa, one of the main attorneys representing both families, said the cases involved drivers who were violating a variety of laws and regulations. The lawsuits are seeking over $100,000 in damages. Lambert’s case also lists Uber as a defendant, as one of the drivers was on a Uber Eats delivery trip at the time of the crash.  

Yaffa noted that the road itself –– University Avenue –– is part of a larger pedestrian safety problem.

“Clearly we need to take action to ensure that we make this road safer,” Yaffa said. “And that's what we're attempting to do, while at the same time hold the drivers responsible for their actions.” Yaffa said.

Since Lambert and Paxton’s deaths, advocacy groups such as Florida Not One More and Gators Against Student Pedestrian Deaths have advocated for safer roadways, lower speed limits and other traffic safety devices. City, state and UF officials have discussed solutions, and police have instituted a program for more traffic enforcement.

According to court records, James Paxton, Maggie Paxton’s father, filed a wrongful death suit against 53-year-old Miguel A. Figueroa on Wednesday afternoon after police found Figueroa’s car that reportedly hit Maggie and fled the scene where she died. 

Figueroa, an Alachua County resident, did not immediately respond to The Alligator’s requests for comment. 

Paxton, an 18-year-old UF natural resource conservation first-year student in Kappa Kappa Gamma, died Dec. 9. That evening, she was at Midtown, a popular plaza across the street from campus that students visit with restaurants and bars before heading to her dorm around 10:50 p.m.

According to the police report and court records, Paxton was crossing University Avenue on the crosswalk at the intersection with Gale Lemerand Drive when a speeding BMW hit her and fled the scene. By the time police and emergency personnel arrived, Paxton had died due to injuries from the crash.

According to the complaint, police found parts of the BMW that had been left in the roadway. The parts, witness statements and surveillance footage led investigators to the BMW. 

It took investigators over two months to find Figueroa. 

Figueroa was identified as the owner of the car, but police have not determined who was driving the car when it hit Paxton. After getting a warrant to look for the car, investigators found the blue 2003 BMW positioned between rows of cars at a car shop he works at, the complaint read. 

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Investigators found the BMW with blood and damage on the passengers’ side hood at Best Motor Works & Sports, an auto repair shop located at 65 SE 10th Ave. in Gainesville, according to the complaint. 

As of Thursday evening, Figueroa — whose previous citations include driving his vehicle unsafely, speeding and not wearing a seatbelt — has not been arrested, according to court records. 

Just a day before, Lawrence Lambert, Sophia Lambert's father, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Uber, Uber’s subsidiary Portier LLC and the drivers and owners of the cars involved in his daughter’s death. 

Lambert, an 18-year-old UF theater first-year in Delta Phi Epsilon sorority, died following a two-car crash on Jan. 16 that hit her and four other UF students she was with on the sidewalk. The five students and driver of the car that hit them were hospitalized. 

Benjamin A. Piper, a 28-year-old Uber Eats driver, was speeding in a 2007 grey Honda Civic eastbound on University Avenue to pick up an order, according to the complaint. Boris Stoyanov, a 19-year-old UF architecture sophomore, was driving an 2015 white Honda accord westbound and turning left onto Buckman Drive. 

Yaffa said Piper was trying to beat a light that was changing, and Stoyanov violated the right of way when he made a left-hand turn in front of Piper. 

The two cars collided, causing Piper’s vehicle to skid out of control, hit a pole, Lambert and her friends on the sidewalk. Lambert was thrown more than 30 feet through the air and hit a brick bench, according to the complaint. She died shortly after she was transported to the UF Health Shands hospital. 

Yaffa said Uber Eats drivers and delivery drivers tend to rely on an app to direct them to delivery and pickup locations they’ve never been to. That can be dangerous, especially when they are distracted by the app, he said. 

“Many times they're not focused on the roadway and where they're going, they're looking at the app to figure out how they can get there as quickly as they can,” Yaffa said. “The quicker they deliver the food, the bigger the tip.”

Uber declined to comment on the pending litigation, but sent a general statement that said the company is committed to road safety and continuing to build products and raise awareness about practices that can lead to safer streets for all — regardless of the mode of travel.

Yaffa said both families are devastated with the loss of their daughters and know that the drivers made critical errors and decisions that led to their daughters’ deaths. However, he said they believe University Avenue, a location where students are traveling all the time, is not safe. 

Yaffa said Paxton and Lambert are not the first to lose their lives on this street, but the families and their lawyers are committed to make the changes necessary so that nobody else does. 

The FDOT will hand over control of a stretch of the road to the City of Gainesville, from 34th to 13th street but is waiting for the city's request for a section of the road to continue. Starting Monday, FDOT will pave special emphasis crosswalks to make pedestrians more visible. 

“These are senseless deaths that were totally preventable,” Yaffa said. “There's no reason why another student or another family has to lose their life or suffer this loss.”

Contact Anna Wilder at Follow her on Twitter @anna_wilderr.

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Anna Wilder

Anna Wilder is a second-year journalism major and the criminal justice reporter. She's from Melbourne, Florida, and she enjoys being outdoors or playing the viola when she's not writing. 

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