Gustavo Gomez v. Alberto Stefanacci: A postal carrier who injured his back when his mail truck was rear-ended was awarded $138,000 by a jury in Bridgeport recently.
Gustavo Gomez, 35, of Bridgeport, was driving his U.S. Postal Service truck along New Haven Avenue in Milford mid-day on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010, after finishing his route.
He stopped in traffic to wait for a driver in front of him to turn left into a hair salon. As he waited, Gomez was rear-ended by a Ford Expedition sport utility vehicle driven by Alberto Stefanacci of Milford. Stefanacci was on his way home from his daughter’s soccer game.
There was minimal property damage in the crash but Gomez later complained of low back pain.
Pamela Cameron, of Moore, O’Brien, Yelenak & Foti in Cheshire, represented Gomez in the subsequent lawsuit. She claimed her client complained of low back pain that caused tingling and numbness in his legs. She said Gomez could not return to work as a postal carrier due to the pain. Before officially leaving the job for good, Gomez collected more than $60,000 in workers’ compensation benefits.
Though an MRI exam did not reveal any structural damage in Gomez’s low back, his doctor assessed him with a 5 percent permanent partial disability rating. Cameron said Gomez underwent physical therapy that specifically included exercises to strengthen his back so he might return to work, but he was never able to do so.
“He couldn’t walk all that way with mail,” Cameron said. “But he was really doing what he could to try to get back to work.”
After Cameron filed the negligence lawsuit, Stefanacci, through a lawyer hired by his insurance carrier, Allstate, argued that a minimal-impact crash could not have injured Gomez to the point of keeping him out of work. Further, the defendant contested liability by arguing that his brakes failed and the ensuing sudden emergency situation prevented him from being responsible for the crash.
As evidence, Stefanacci pointed out all of the SUV’s brake fluid had leaked out and was visible at the accident scene. Stefanacci also testified he had his brake lines fixed following the crash.
Cameron acknowledged that Stefanacci’s brakes failed, but she still maintained that he could have avoided the crash. She said Stefanacci had been following seven or eight car lengths behind Gomez and that he could have applied his emergency brakes or swerved. The attorney said Stefanacci ultimately applied his emergency brakes after the crash occurred.
“When you’re faced with a sudden emergency, you still have to act reasonably under the circumstances,” said Cameron.
Stefanacci was represented by Thomas Mulligan Jr., of McNamara & Kenney in Bridgeport, who also noted that Gomez had prior back issues. His mail truck had previously been rear-ended In January 2010. Though most of the damage was to his knee, he also received physical therapy for back pain. Gomez was in another car accident in 2006 and complained of back pain afterwards.
Cameron said Gomez’s prior back injuries had healed prior to the October 2010 crash. The defense did not present any phsycians as expert witnesses to testify otherwise.
Allstate had little interest in making a substantial settlement offer, according to Cameron, given the minimal impact collision, the plaintiff’s prior back pain and the defendant’s sudden loss of brakes. Cameron said the insurer offered just $2,700. As such, the two sides proceeded to trial in the Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport before Judge Richard Gilardi.
“The defense tried to argue that [Gomez] wasn’t really injured and was motivated by litigation basically,” said Cameron.
She said the defense team argued that it made no sense for Gomez to be out of work for so long after what it characterized as a minimal-impact crash. However, Cameron responded that Gomez had found a temporary job that turned permanent; he now works as a machinist at a factory. She said he changed to the overnight shift last month so he could attend the trial, resulting in a very tired plaintiff.
“When he was testifying, he was yawning,” said Cameron, who told the jury why her client was so tired. She thinks that helped persuade jurors about her client’s work ethic, as did the fact that Gomez had another part-time job when he was a mail carrier.
“Basically, my argument was that he didn’t fit the profile of the malingerer that the defense was trying to make him out to be and I think the jury believed him,” said Cameron.
The jury awarded $64,646 in economic damages for lost wages and medical bills and more than $73,000 in non-economic damages for a total verdict of $138,000.
Mulligan, the defense lawyer, said the verdict ultimately came down to the jury’s perception of Gomez. “I think the jury just thought that Mr. Gomez was a very credible witness,” said Mulligan. “The verdict was much higher than I wanted to see come in but I think they felt he was very credible. That was the key.”
Mulligan still believes Gomez collected workers’ compensation benefits for longer than was necessary, given his injury. “They just paid him his compensation without monitoring it closely,” he said. “So he was out of work for probably a longer time than should of occurred if they were carefully managing the workers’ compensation claim.”
Mulligan said Gomez will have to repay the workers’ comp system a “substantial” portion of his verdict. Mulligan also said he would not appeal the decision..
Since Allstate was offering just $2,700 to settle, Gomez was happy with the way things ended up, Cameron said. “My client netted a good amount of the verdict,” she said. “It was an easy decision to go to trial.”•