John D’Agata, et al. v. Marvin Williams, et al.: Two people badly injured when a Jet Ski crashed into them as they floated in the Connecticut River were recently awarded $3.2 million by a judge trial referee in Hartford, though the plaintiffs’ lawyer says it’s unlikely they will collect nearly that much.
On July 30, 2011, at about 6:15 p.m., John D’Agata, 25, and Lisa Schildknecht, 24, were sitting in a round, yellow 5-foot-wide and 3-foot-high flotation device attached to the back of a motor boat by a 50-foot rope. The flotation device is designed for two people, who are supposed to be in a partially reclining position as a boat slowly tows them.
The boat, driven by Joseph Vassallo, was heading south under the Interstate 291 Bissell Bridge overpass, which connects South Windsor and Windsor, going 10 to 15 mph.
At the same time, Marvin Williams, 20, was operating a 2005 Bombardier Jet Ski, which was going about 30 mph. Williams was south of the boat, driving the Jet Ski in a figure 8 pattern and runing repeatedly over his own wake in an attempt to become airborne.
Williams then headed towards Vassallo’s boat in hopes of making use of the boat’s larger wake. As Williams turned to go behind the boat, he did not realize there were two people on a flotation device and smashed into them.
The float overturned and D’Agata and Schildknecht were thrown into the water. Vassallo rescued one of them while the other was rescued by someone from another nearby boat. They were taken to shore and then rushed to Hartford Hospital.
According to D’Agata and Schildknecht’s lawyer, Timothy Brignole, of Brignole Bush & Lewis in Hartford, the impact broke several bones in D’Agata’s leg and shattered his pelvis. Schildknecht also broke her pelvis and was bleeding profusely from a cut to her forehead.
Brignole said she has a permanent scar on her forehead in the shape of a “Y” that a judge trial referee later said “seriously detracts from her appearance.”
“She’s still a pretty young lady with a scar on her forehead,” said Brignole. “Every day she looks in the mirror and it reminds her of the accident.”
Schildknecht was also treated in the hospital for a blood clot that ran from her left leg to her lungs. Upon her release from the hospital, she walked with a cane for six months. She has a hematoma and nerve damage in the area of the left buttock and thigh. She can no longer go running; she previously ran seven miles a day.
D’Agata, meanwhile, had recently just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was slated for a third tour but was honorably discharged because his injuries prevent him from skydiving, Brignole said. His pelvis was surgically repaired with metal now holding it together. His right hip was also broken, as were three leg bones — the femur, tibia and fibula.
Brignole said D’Agata will require hip and knee replacement surgeries in time. “John, being the consummate soldier that he is, plays down what he goes through,” said Brignole. “He has as much metal in his body as a new car these days.”
Brignole filed a lawsuit alleging negligence and recklessness. The case went to a one-day bench trial in August before Judge Trial Referee Richard M. Rittenband, who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. He awarded D’Agata $1.9 million and Schildknecht $1.2 million.
“We will never collect the amount of the verdict,” admitted Brignole. “We’ll be lucky to collect $100,000 on the $3 million,” because the defendant’s family is not wealthy and lacked insurance on the personal watercraft.
Brignole explained that Williams should not have been operating the Jet Ski, because he lacked a personal watercraft license, which is required by the state. In fact, Williams didn’t even own the Jet Ski. It belonged to his mother, Ivetta Scarlata. A Connecticut statute says that when a parent allows a child to operate a boat or car, that parent is responsible for the authorized use by the child. Brignole said that because the mother owned the Jet Ski, Williams’ negligence was imputed on her.
However, the lawyer for Williams and his mother, John Q. Gale, of Hartford, argued that Williams did not have permission that day to operate the Jet Ski and that the young man did not live with his parents at that time. Gale did not return calls seeking comment for this article.
The judge could have ruled that the mother was not liable for what happened because it was an unauthorized use of the Jet Ski. However, at both the crash scene and during a deposition, Williams said he lived with his parents, thus undercutting the defense argument.
Judge Trial Referee Rittenband found the mother “lacking in credibility” and he stated that Williams “lied” when both testified at the trial that Williams was living with his brother at the time of the accident.
“A parent’s worst nightmare is to be responsible for your children’s negligence that’s not covered by insurance,” said Brignole. “She owns [the Jet Ski] and didn’t have insurance. She allowed her son to operate it. He takes off and injures someone. Now her house is on the chopping block, her assets and income, all because of her son.”
Brignole noted that he owns personal watercraft that his sons use and he has them insured in case his sons accidentally injure someone.
“Someone needs to go to the legislature and get them to require that boats and Jet Skis have insurance similar to automobiles with policy coverages on them,” said Brignole. “People are getting hit and killed by them all the time.”•