Alexandra Smith, PPA, et al. v. Claude Errera: A 16-year-old girl who was injured after a car veered off the roadway and smashed head on into the horse she was riding was recently awarded nearly $268,000 by a New Haven judge.

Alexandra Smith and several friends went out riding on Sept. 16, 2011 in the town of Bethany. Though Smith was with classmates from Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, her lawyer said her very best friend at the time was her horse, named Honey. “She had spent almost every day with this horse,” said Joseph D. Foti Jr., of Moore, O’Brien, Yelenak & Foti in Cheshire. “When [Smith] couldn’t ride the horse, she was grooming her.”

Foti said Smith and her friends had decided to call it a day and began riding their horses in the direction of the long-closed Bethany Airport, where there are now stables. Foti said one of the teens realized they had forgotten something and they quickly turned around. The three teens, the attorney said, were riding single file along the side of the road. Smith, who was probably the most experienced rider, was first in the line.

As the group rode along Fairwood Road at its intersection with Deerfield Lane at about 9:55 p.m., a vehicle driven by Claude Errera, who lived just a couple blocks away, crossed over the double yellow lines, continued off the roadway and then hit Honey head-on. The impact knocked Smith to the ground, and she lost consciousness for a short time, her lawyer said.

“When she regained consciousness, she saw her horse walking in a circle,” said Foti. For a moment, Smith was relieved, as she expected to see the horse lying on the ground. “And then the horse collapsed and died in front of her,” said Foti, noting that the animal was bleeding profusely.

“[Smith] was absolutely hysterical,” said Foti. “She was afraid to get treatment. She thought she was going to die right there. She had never experienced anything like that before. She knew her head was hurting her badly. She was told not to move….so she did feel this was it.”

Foti said Smith was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where she was kept for observation for a period of time due to a concussion. Other injuries included a fractured right hand, a left wrist injury, and vision problems that lingered after the concussion. The teenager also continued to have headaches (though they have grown less frequent over time), nausea and dizziness. Because of the vision problems, Smith had trouble seeing the blackboard in class and was forced to start wearing glasses, Foti said.

Smith also claimed she had flashbacks of Errera’s car’s headlights shining in her eyes during class. Additionally, she claims that her wrist still clicks and “goes in and out” when she picks up objects, according to court documents. Foti said that her medical bills approached $17,800, with a large portion of that stemming from the initial hospital stay. “She has made a good recovery with her physical injuries,” said Foti. “Her significant problems after her treatment were primarily emotional pain and suffering.”

Primarily, Foti said, Smith was grieving the loss of her best friend. The attorney noted that the Smith family did not own Honey, but leased her. The horse was in its teen years; they often live into their late 20s.

Foti said he was unsure just how fast Errera was driving at the point of impact. “It was fast enough that there was nothing any of them could do to get out of the way of the car,” said Foti. “[Smith] recalls looking at the horse’s face and seeing the horse basically put her head up, her eyes open widely to the site of the two headlights coming directly at it. [Smith] said she’ll never forget that moment.”

Foti said that the “height of the horse” basically saved the rider’s life because the animal’s body absorbed the brunt of the collision. “But in her mind, [Honey] was her best friend, so it was as if her best friend gave up her life for Alexandra,” said Foti.

Foti filed a lawsuit against the driver, Errara, in New Haven Superior Court, claiming negligence and both statutory and common law recklessness. Foti said that Errera was ticketed at the accident scene for crossing the double yellow lines and that there was never any doubt as to who was responsible for the crash.

Foti said Errera was apologetic at the crash scene, though it is uncertain why he crossed the double yellow lines in the first place.

The lawyer representing Errera’s insurance company, Robert J. Johnson, of Connelly & Johnson in Glastonbury, did not contest liability, though the two sides weren’t able to reach a pre-trial settlement agreement. The defense lawyer could not be reached for comment last week.

A one-day bench trial was held before Judge Mark Gould. Testifying were Alexandra Smith and her mother, Cynthia Smith. The police accident report and Smith’s medical records were entered into evidence.

Smith’s mother testified that her daughter has become more emotional since the accident — and the horse’s death — and frequently displays an “attitude.” Smith said her daughter’s grades declined so much that the family felt the need to hire a tutor.

Gould, in a written decision, ruled in Smith’s favor and awarded $267,744. Of that amount, $250,000 was for non-economic damages. The remainder was to cover the medical bills.

Foti said despite the traumatic experience, Alexandra Smith now wants to pursue a career as an equine veterinarian. “She’s an amazing young girl,” the lawyer said. “She’s getting herself down there to ride and work with horses again. [The accident] sort of shaped her vision for the future. It’s what she wants to do.”•