Rita Grant, et al. v. Norwich Discount Liquor LLC: The family of a young man with cerebral palsy, whose wheelchair fell more than three feet off a strip mall walkway with a missing railing, has recovered $1.2 million in a recent settlement.

On Aug. 25, 2009, Rita Grant took her son, Tony Grant, to a strip mall in Norwich to get his haircut at Cost Cutters. Because of disability, Tony Grant, 23, is blind, completely wheelchair dependent and cannot speak.

According to the family’s lawyer, Dale P. Faulkner, of New London’s Faulkner & Graves, Grant’s mother fastened her son in his wheelchair and headed down a concrete walkway past several other businesses, including Norwich Discount Liquor, whose owner owned the strip mall property, on her way to the barber shop. Faulkner noted that given Tony Grant’s disability, it’s not easy for him to get a haircut , but the family had always had good luck at this particular barbershop.

Near the Cost Cutters entrance, an older woman asked Rita Grant for help opening the door. When Grant let go of her son’s wheelchair to open the door for the woman, the wheelchair rolled off of an unguarded edge to the walkway. The son hit the ground face first, Faulkner said.

Rita Grant didn’t realize what happened until she reached back for the wheelchair and it wasn’t there. When she finally looked down at her fallen son, “she thought he was dead,” according to her deposition, said Faulkner.

“It was like a rocket falling off this edge,” said Faulkner. “He went down completely head first. His head was the first thing to hit the dirt below.”

Faulkner said that Grant was taken to Backus Hospital in Norwich and then flown by Life Star helicopter to Hartford Hospital, which was judged to better be able to treat his severe facial fractures in the context of his pre-existing disability.

Tony Grant routinely takes anti-seizure medication, but received none at the hospital, Faulkner said. So the day after the accident, just prior to surgery, Grant began having seizures, including a grand mal seizure where a person’s entire body spasms. In total, Tony Grant had 10 to 15 seizures while in the hospital, the lawyer said.

During the surgery, Tony Grant had metal plates and screws installed, which will remain permanently in his head. He had lost his four front teeth and part of his jaw bone. Further, because he was confined to a hospital bed for so long, Grant developed a bedsore on his back that, to this day, requires treatment with ointments. Initially, skin had to be removed because the infection got so bad.

In all, Faulkner said Grant’s medical bills were about $100,000.

Meanwhile, Faulkner discovered that the lack of railing along the strip mall walkway was a violation of Connecticut Building Code. There had been a railing in place sometime before the accident and another one has been installed since, according to Faulkner. The attorney filed a negligence lawsuit on behalf of Grant’s family against Norwich Discount Liquor for not having a railing or a warning sign that there was a substantial drop off the edge of the walkway.

Attorney Patrice Noah, of Wallingford, who represented the defendant, argued that Grant’s mother was partially liable for what happened. In March 2011 she filed an apportionment complaint alleging that Rita Grant was either in whole or in part responsible for Tony Grant’s damages.

Faulkner disputed the apportionment claim, citing the doctrine of parental immunity. By law, children under the age of 18 cannot sue their parents. An apportionment claim is valid only in situations where one party could legally file suit against the other. Noah, who could not be reached for comment for this article, argued that because Tony Grant is more than 18 years old, he could legally file suit against his parents.

In his response, Faulkner cited Tony Grant’s disability. “Tony isn’t a child because he’s over 18,” said Faulkner. “So under normal circumstances, he’d be able to sue his mother. But here my position was even though he’s 23, he really is a child. He’s no different in terms of being a child at 23 than he was at 3. He demands the same level of care.”

Faulkner said Superior Court Judge Emmet Cosgrove applied a “reasonable, common sense approach” to the dispute and disalllowed the apportioment claim. Faulkner said the ruling was crucial to his case.

“A jury, I think, [could] say, ‘You know, his mother really did take her hands off the wheelchair,’” said Faulkner. “So it was important for us. I never thought she did anything wrong to tell you the truth but jurors aren’t looking at it as subjectively as I am. So it was good to get that out of the case.”

As the case grew closer to a July trial date, settlement talks began to heat up. The two sides agreed to attend mediation with former Superior Court Judge Elaine Gordon that lasted two days. The parties agreed to settle the case for $1.2 million, an agreement that became official in late August.

Faulkner said some of the settlement money will be used to improve Tony Grant’s quality of life. “The parents are planning to have a handicapped bathroom and an indoor pool installed,” said Faulkner. “Because Tony spends so much time in his wheelchair, the pool will help strengthen his arms and legs.”

Faulkner said the young man’s wheelchair also doesn’t fit into the kitchen of the family home, so the family may try to remedy that as well.

Interestingly, the Grant family home in Salem was built by Habitat for Humanity after their next-door neighbor, Rachel Robinson, the late Jackie Robinson’s wife, donated some portion of her 60-acre farm so the Grants could live on the property.•