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An accident that left four members of a suburban Buffalo, N.Y., family dead has New York taxpayers on the hook for more than $8.5 million in damages. Court of Claims Judge Renee Forgensi Minarik was confronted with the task of assessing damages in a case where both parents and two of their children perished while two younger siblings escaped death but suffered grave injuries. The claim raised myriad legal and technical issues involving the assessment of damages and resulted in a 50-page ruling. Minarik’s decision came more than four years after another Court of Claims judge, John P. Lane, found the state entirely at fault for the Oct. 5, 1995, New York State Thruway accident that killed Paul and Deborah LaMendola and two of their four children, an 8-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. Their two youngest children, Paul Jr., 5, and Lauren, 7, suffered serious injuries. Water had accumulated on the rutted highway, causing the LaMendolas’ vehicle to hydroplane into a disabled dump truck on the side of the road. In the liability decision, Judge Lane observed that the state had known for four years that the Thruway section near Lancaster, N.Y., was dangerously rutted but had neglected to correct the defect. “It became clear to me within the first two days of trial that this would be no ordinary battle of fact and law, but instead would be an odyssey into the emotions, disappointments and destruction of what were once solid familial relationships,” Minarik wrote in LaMendola v. New York State Thruway Authority, 93132/93133. “The backdrop to this case is not so much the horrendous auto accident as much as it is the story of two children who covet precious little original memories of their once intact nuclear family.” The court attempted to put a dollar figure on not only the physical damages suffered by the survivors, which resulted in months of rehabilitation, but also on intangibles such as the loss of parental nurturing and advocacy for their needs. In addition, Judge Minarik needed to assess the potential income of the parents — a contractor and an interior decorator — and determine how their support would have affected the lives of the children had the catastrophe not occurred. Minarik did not award any damages for pre-impact terror, reasoning that the crash “was so ferocious” and sudden that it is unlikely any of the victims was aware of it. She did award damages for the conscious suffering of Lauren but could not find proof that Paul knew what had occurred until he was in the hospital. Minarik took issue with the state’s position that Lauren is emotionally unaffected by the loss of most of her family. “I read a letter that leads me to believe differently; in it, Lauren writes that she would like to invite her parents and deceased brother and sister to Christmas dinner, ask her mom what it is like in heaven and if her mom is happy,” Judge Minarik wrote. SPECIAL NEEDS Paul had special medical needs before the crash, records show. He is an albino and suffers from other disorders, according to the decision. Those needs intensified dramatically after the accident and were made worse by the loss of his parents, the court said. “Doctors’ appointments do not magically appear on calendars and services, such as occupational or vision therapy, do not just happen,” Minarik wrote. “Obtaining services for children with disabilities is a lot of work … [and] the loss of his parents made it less likely that Paul Jr. would develop and progress the same way he would have had his parents not died in the auto accident.” She said Paul is entitled to weekly psychotherapy sessions for the rest of his life, plus $1.5 million for loss of parental nurture and guidance and $3 million for loss of advocacy. Lauren’s award for loss of nurture and guidance was $450,000 and she was awarded $2 million for loss of advocacy. Francis M. Letro of Buffalo argued for the claimants. Assistant Attorney General Richard B. Friedfertig defended the state. Marc Violette, spokesman for the attorney general, said no decision has yet been made on whether to appeal. Letro was not immediately available for comment.

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