Greenwich Assistant Town Attorney Aamina Ahmad ()
William Kumah, et al. v. Town of Greenwich: William Kumah was left paralyzed following a collision on Interstate 95 in which his car smashed into a fire truck that was parked across two lanes of the highway in the middle of the night.
Kumah’s ensuing lawsuit against the town of Greenwich became familiar to many in the legal community because pre-trial motions went all the way to the state Supreme Court. In the end, just two claims — for negligence and public nuisance — against the town of Greenwich were allowed to proceed to trial.
More than seven years after the accident, a Bridgeport Superior Court jury recently decided that the town of Greenwich was not at fault. The decision was a substantial victory for the town. Kumah, who is in his 40s, needs ’round-the-clock medical care and his attorneys had sought $12 million in damages.
“This was a very unfortunate accident for Mr. Kumah and his wonderful family,” said Greenwich Assistant Town Attorney Aamina Ahmad. “However, the town believes that its volunteers from the Cos Cob Fire Police Patrol acted in a reasonable manner and were exercising their judgment and discretion in responding to a serious emergency situation on the highway.”
At 1:50 a.m. on Sept. 3, 2006, Leo Brown was driving a tractor-trailer southbound on I-95 near the end of the Mianus River Bridge in Greenwich when he lost control of his rig and struck a Jersey barrier and bridge railing. The truck eventually came to rest in the right and center lanes of the highway.
Because of the accident, 35 gallons of diesel fuel leaked onto the highway. First-responders included state police, Greenwich firefighters, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Cos Cob volunteer fire police patrol.
Several rear-end collisions occurred on the highway in the aftermath of the accident. Emergency responders then temporarily closed the highway while the Cos Cob patrol set up an emergency traffic pattern.
The volunteers parked their vehicle diagonally across the center and right lanes of the highway. It was illuminated and the volunteers placed safety cones and flares on the road leading up to it so that other drivers would know to merge into the left lane.
Brown’s tractor-trailer was removed from the highway, one lane was reopened and crews continued to clean up the fuel spill. Meanwhile, William Kumah was returning to his home in Long Island after transporting family members living in Derby to and from a wedding on Long Island that took place the day previous.
Kumah was alone in his car traveling southbound on I-95 at 4:10 a.m. As Kumah approached the prior accident scene, he skidded through the safety cones and smashed into the parked fire vehicle and then the bridge railing.
Kumah and his wife later sued Greenwich, as well as Brown, the driver whose rig initially crashed and spilled the fuel. In July 2010, Brown filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the claims, arguing that his accident was not the proximate cause of Kumah’s injuries. A trial judge agreed and the state Appellate Court upheld the ruling.
The trial judge also granted Greenwich’s motion to strike negligence and nuisance counts against the town on immunity grounds. (Municipalities are generally shielded from negligence claims resulting from discretionary decisions made by public employees.) But in a 2011 decision, the state Appellate Court disagreed with the trial court and allowed the lawsuit against the town to continue.
Aamina then appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court. In January 2013, in a decision penned by Justice Richard Palmer involving complex statutory interpretation, the justices also sided with Kumah and allowed the case against the town to go to trial.
The case went to trial in Bridgeport Superior Court in January before Judge Dale Radcliffe. Evidence presentation took about two weeks. Jury selection in December had taken about the same amount of time.
Ahmad said town officials were reluctant to settle this case. “In this case, town bodies felt strongly our volunteers did not do anything wrong,” said Ahmad.
Kumah was represented at trial by David Kritzman, of Beck & Eldergill in Manchester, Conn.. Kritzman declined to comment for this article.
The crux of Kritzman’s lawsuit was that the town was negligent and created a nuisance by parking the fire truck across two highway lanes and not lighting it well enough to forewarn motorists.
Experts testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs included an accident reconstructionist, a life-care planner and economist. The town called to the stand an expert who testified that the truck had been illuminated well enough to be safely seen by oncoming cars.
Though Ahmad handled the lawsuit for the most part, the town’s insurer brought in Harold Friedman and Brett Leland of Verrill Dana in Portland, Me. to defend the case at trial.
The jury deliberated for just over a half day before rendering a defense verdict in favor of the town.
In the end, Ahmad believes immunity made the difference. “There is a statute that provides immunity to municipalities like ours if we can show all of our actions were discretionary actions taken during the course of a governmental function,” explained Ahmad. “That was something we had to show by way of special defense.”
Ahmad said the jury recognized that as evidenced by the interrogatory questions they had to answer.
“On the negligence count, there was a specific question which asked them: Did the town of Greenwich prove all of their actions were discretionary, not ministerial and therefore the town was immune from liability? [The jury] answered that question yes,” said Ahmad.
Ahmad said immunity was not specifically a defense to the nuisance count. With regard to that claim, she said the plaintiffs had to show the town took certain actions “that created a dangerous condition on the highway.” Again, the jurors saw it the town’s way.
“We feel it’s never a good thing when somebody gets hurt like Mr. Kumah did,” said Ahmad. “It’s a big change in his life and for his family but the town feels strongly its volunteers acted in an appropriate manner and did the right thing.”
Kritzman, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, has filed a motion asking Judge Radcliffe to set aside the jury’s verdict.