Dianne Drugge v. United States Automobile Association (USAA): An 82-year-old English teacher at Stamford High School was unable to convince a jury that a fall that caused a broken hip was caused by a custodian who drove close to her in a snowy parking lot.
On January 7, 2011, Stamford High School was dismissed early because of an incoming snowstorm. About two or three inches had already fallen by mid-day.
On a typical day, Dianne Drugge’s husband would pick her up in the high school parking lot when school let out. But on this day, the husband never reached the usual rendezvous point. Attorney Michael Young, of Ryan Ryan Deluca in Stamford, explained that the Drugge husband had been involved in an accident elsewhere on the school grounds.
Young said there’s a hilly access road that leads to the parking lot. On that day, there was a taxi trying to get up the hill. Because of the slick road conditions, the cab slid back down the hill and into Drugge’s husband’s vehicle, pushing it across the road.
The husband parked the car at the bottom of the hill after the accident and Dianne Drugge began walking in that direction. "She was walking down the sidewalk trying to figure out what had just happened," said Young.
At the same time, a school custodian, Anthony Darling, pulled into the school grounds and had to drive around the accident to make his way toward the parking lot. In doing so, Young explained, Darling had to drive on the far left side of the road to get by the cab and Drugge’s husband’s car. His route took him toward the edge of the sidewalk.
"[Darling's] able to drive around those vehicles without any difficulty," said Young. "In doing so, he drives close to the sidewalk area the plaintiff would walk down. She testified she was waiting at the end of the sidewalk on the last step and as [Darling] drives by, she falls and fractures her hip."
Young noted that, as all this was happening, it was snowing heavily. An ambulance was called and Drugge was taken to the hospital. X-rays revealed that she had broken her left hip.
Drugge later hired a lawyer, Robert J. Guendelsberger, of the Guendelsberger Law Offices in New Milford. He filed a lawsuit claiming that the custodian was driving too fast for the conditions and that he came so close to the sidewalk that his vehicle brushed against her clothing. Drugge’s husband claims he yelled at Darling to slow down as he passed by.
Drugge further claims that she had to take evasive action to avoid being hit by the truck. When she did, she said, she fell to the ground and broke her hip. She needed two surgeries, but she has recovered well enough to go back to work.
"She was very active prior to this," said Young, noting that she still danced at her advanced age. "She considered herself to be very healthy for her age. She did testify that she continues to have some problems and limitations with her hip and lower extremity."
Guendelsberger, who did not return calls for this article, reached a settlement with Darling’s insurer for the $25,000 policy limit, according to Young. Then Drugge filed a claim against her own insurer, United States Automobile Association (USAA), for underinsured motorist benefits. Attorney Young represented USAA.
"We asserted some special defenses against her saying she failed to keep a proper lookout," said Young. "There was some evidence she didn’t look to her right and didn’t see the vehicle at all before it passed her."
Young argued that Drugge fell from the slippery conditions, not because of anything Darling did. "They argued there was no reason for someone to be coming [on that side of the access road] from the right," said Young. "But the fact there was an accident, it was reasonable someone might be driving on that side of the street."
The case went to trial before Judge Dale Radcliffe in the Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport. Evidence presentation took one day. Closing arguments took place the second day. Drugge, her husband and Darling all testified.
Darling said that as he made the left onto the school access road, he was able to see the accident and steer clear of the two cars involved. He said he was going about 30 mph.
Darling claimed that he had seen 10 to 15 people standing further up the sidewalk but nobody standing close to the roadway. He said he didn’t see anyone fall. He also said he was not notified until later that night that an ambulance had come to the school to take Drugge to the hospital, and that he might somehow have been involved.
The jury deliberated for about an hour before returning a defense verdict. Young said Guendelsberger asked the jury for a total of about $275,000 to cover $80,000 worth of medical bills, as well as pain and suffering. That number was in line with the underinsured motorist policy limits of $300,000.
Young, who said he spoke with a couple jurors after the trial, said the jury just didn’t think Drugge’s fall was Darling’s fault.
"She’s a nice old lady, very hardworking and I think the jury really liked her," said Young. "But they also recognized that there were certain things that didn’t add up. She had clear injuries, a lot of medical bills… they just didn’t think Mr. Darling was negligent and she could’ve done more to avoid this incident."•