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The parents of a 39-year-old mentally retarded man found by a civil court ruling to have been repeatedly abused by two workers at a state-run group home in Norwich, Conn., didn’t witness their son being choked unconscious or dangled by his feet over a stairwell railing. Nor did they hear Steven Pattavina scream in pain as his fingers allegedly were bent backward by one of his caregivers. Still, the parents were awarded $150,000 for pain and suffering by Middlesex County, Conn., Superior Court Judge James M. Higgins in his groundbreaking Aug. 23 decision in Pattavina v. Mills. As part of the family’s suit against the state Department of Mental Retardation and the two employees alleged to have carried out the abuse, Emanuel and Connie Pattavina sought damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress under a cause of action “separate and distinct” from bystander emotional distress, according to their lawyers. Under Connecticut caselaw, the latter claim requires close family members of an injured party to have experienced some sensory perception of the incident. Higgins’ ruling, however, “creates a new cause of action for other parents,” declared Thomas Cartelli of Middletown, Conn.’s Fortuna and Cartelli. Cartelli and Paul A. Morello Jr., of Donovan & Morello in Cromwell, Conn., teamed up to win a $1.1 million judgment against the DMR and co-defendants William J. Mills and Dale G. Swett, including $700,000 in past and future non-economic damages for Steven Pattavina. Crucial to Higgins’ finding in favor of the parents’ emotional distress claim was what he termed the “shocking way” in which they learned of their son’s abuse — through a television news report. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose office represented the DMR in the dispute, said the state is considering seeking clarification from Higgins as to what amount of the judgment each defendant is liable for. Once that decision is made, Blumenthal said his office will discuss whether or not to appeal the ruling. Swett’s lawyer, Benjamin M. Massa of the Law Offices of Benjamin M. Massa in Hartford, Conn., could not be reached by press time. Mills, who is representing himself pro se, denied that he abused Pattavina and claimed the allegations against him were supported by only one witness whose credibility he questions. However, Mills said he is not appealing the decision because he is without money to do so. MISPLACED TRUST? For the moment, Blumenthal won’t share his view of Higgins’ findings. But he agreed with the plaintiffs’ lawyers on the ruling’s potential precedential effect. “It could have ramifications for many other actions affecting parties well beyond the state,” he proclaimed. Indeed, Higgins’ decision to award damages to Pattavina’s parents, Morello speculated, could have far-reaching consequences for more than just cases involving the abuse of a person in the DMR’s care. He and Cartelli, however, concede that the judge based his ruling on a fairly unique set of facts. They include Steven Pattavina’s inability to communicate, other than to make sounds that seem to denote fear or happiness. Though an adult, the court regarded him as a child, according to Cartelli. Pattavina has lived in DMR-run facilities since age three. In arguing Emanuel and Connie Pattavina’s emotional distress claim, Morello said he and Cartelli had to prove the high degree of trust the couple placed in the state agency, as well as their continued involvement in their son’s life. However, the DMR, in its June 23 trial memorandum, attempted to downplay the couple’s emotional injuries. Because she didn’t testify at trial, “there is virtually no evidence of emotional distress suffered by Mrs. Pattavina,” it claimed. “As to Mr. Pattavina, the predominant emotion is a feeling of guilt arising from his own acts and omissions over a period of years.” From 1990 to ’96 when Steven Pattavina was being transitioned from life in an institution, his parents, the state alleged, “attended few, if any, annual planning meetings” regarding their son’s care. Higgins, however, took a different view of the couple. “For 35 years,” he wrote, “they have remained the plenary and legal guardians of their son and have made the required financial contributions toward his care and treatment,” as well as regular visits to the hospitals and group homes where their son has lived. “As a result of the documented abuse of Steven, and the manner in which it was discovered by Mr. Pattavina, the parents have suffered extreme mental and emotional distress,” the judge concluded. Though the allegations surfaced in July 1995, Higgins found that Mills and Swett, who were responsible for Pattavina’s care, had mistreated him for several months and kept co-workers silent through intimidation and threats. The Pattavinas contended that they were not told of the investigation, contrary to DMR guidelines to apprise parents of their children’s care and progress. The state insisted that a DMR caseworker placed a call to their home some weeks after the investigation had commenced. Higgins, however, sided with Emanuel Pattavina’s testimony that he learned of the matter in May 1996 through a friend whose daughter-in-law had been watching the news.

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