Nellie Mace v. Alena Spino, et al.: A 96-year-old woman seriously injured in a head-on collision in Guilford has settled her lawsuit for an even $1 million.

Nellie Mace, then 93, was on her way to a hairdresser’s appointment in Guilford on Oct. 27, 2009, at 12:45 p.m., when Alena Spino crossed the double yellow lines of Route 1 and crashed head-on into Mace’s car.

Spino, 29, was driving a sport utility vehicle owned by John Hodson, for whom Spino worked as a nanny. Hodson’s infant daughter was in the back seat.

Mace was transported via ambulance to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Her lawyer, Ed Walsh, of New Haven, said the elderly woman took the brunt of the crash. He noted that both cars were going about 40 mph at the time of the collision.

At the hospital, Mace was diagnosed with a broken left leg, as well as cracked ribs and cracked vertebrae. Walsh said Mace’s most serious injury was the fractured leg, which required “extensive surgery.”

Mace spent a month in the hospital. “[Doctors] were concerned about her surviving in the condition she was in,” said Walsh. “It was a major thing that she survived this and lived.”

Mace next spent three months at Madison House Care and Rehabilitation Center, in Madison, where she underwent intensive physical therapy.

Prior to the crash she was able to walk normally, so doctors attempted to restore that ability as best as they could. Unfortunately, Walsh said, Mace has to use a walker now to get around. Walsh said that Mace, despite her age, also drove daily to do errands or visit her grandchildren. Now, he said, she needs someone to take her everywhere.

Mace filed a lawsuit against Spino and Hodson for negligence and sought double or treble damages. “Statute allows double or treble damages for deliberate or reckless actions in the operation of a motor vehicle,” said Walsh.

The key factor in this case was what prompted a 29-year-old healthy driver in clear driving conditions to cross the double yellow line and hit Mace head-on. Spino was ticketed at the crash scene for failure to drive on the correct side of the roadway.

Suspicious as to whether Spano was paying attention, Walsh sought Spino’s cell phone records. Walsh noted that a police officer responding to the crash scene noted that Spino “had a poor attitude at the scene and that he had a difficult time of getting her off the cell phone just so he could talk to her.”

Initially, Spino was represented by attorney Deborah Bradley, who serves as counsel for Nationwide Insurance. The defendants contested turning over the cell phone records on grounds that would be an invasion of Spino’s privacy, but a judge said the records should be turned over as part of pre-trial discovery.

Once Walsh got his hands on the cell phone records, he said it was apparent what caused the accident. He said the police report said the crash happened at about 12:45 p.m. and Spino’s last outgoing text message was at 12:44 p.m.

“Cell phone records confirmed she was texting as she was driving,” said Walsh. The plaintiffs attorney said Route 1 curves just prior to the accident site. He believes Spino sent her text and never negotiated the curve, striking his client head-on.

At Spino’s deposition, Walsh said she neither admitted or denied text messaging around the time of the crash. Interestingly, Walsh learned during the deposition that Spino had previously been involved in three other car crashes.

Walsh said the deposition of Hodson, the owner of the car Spino was driving, may have been more helpful to him than to the defense. The attorney said Hodson had been told by Spino that the accident was just a minor fender-bender and no one had been hurt. Further, Hodson noted that after the crash but prior to the resolution of this case, he had to fire Spino from her nanny job for forging checks and stealing money.

“We thought that would go against her from a credibility standpoint at trial,” said Walsh. “[Hodson] had no idea until the deposition that my client had been injured to the extent she had been injured.”

The two sides attempted mediation last fall but were not successful in reaching an agreement. Not until recently, when the case was scheduled for trial, did serious settlement talks take place, said Walsh. At the start of trial, two different lawyers were hired by Nationwide Insurance — Miles N. Esty, of Esty & Buckmir in Hamden, who represented Spino, and Christopher P. Kriesen, of Gordon, Muir & Foley in Hartford, who represented Hodson. Neither Estir nor Buckmir returned calls for this story.

Superior Court Judge Jonathan Silbert held a settlement conference at the start of trial and this time it was successful. The amount was an even $1 million for Mace.

Walsh said the insurance company appeared to hold off on settling until just before the start of trial to see whether the 96-year-old Mace would live that long.

“Generally, in valuing a case, one of the elements [attorneys] look at is the enjoyment somebody gets out of living their lives,” explained Walsh. “If they pass away, they’ve lost the ability to enjoy their life and the case is worth less.”

Walsh said Mace has been fortunate to have her family’s support throughout the case. She has a son, five grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.

“She’s doing the best she can with her disability,” said Walsh. “She’s going on with living her life without the independence she enjoyed before the accident. She’s a very spiritual woman. She used to go to Mass every week. Now she watches Mass every day on TV.”•