Amy Freedman-Lopenzo v. Trumbull Insurance Co.: A woman who was injured in a rear-end collision on Halloween 2008 and ended up needing two major back surgeries was recently awarded more than $976,000 by a Hartford judge.

Amy Freedman-Lopenzo, a divorced 33-year-old certified medical assistant, was stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Rainbow Road and Hamilton Road in Windsor. Suddenly, another vehicle came from behind and hit Freedman-Lopenzo’s vehicle, according to her lawyer, Garrett M. Moore, of Moore, O’Brien, Yelenak & Foti in Cheshire. In turn, Freedman-Lopenzo’s vehicle was pushed forward into another vehicle that was also stopped in traffic.

Freedman-Lopenzo was taken by an ambulance to the hospital and treated for injuries to her neck, lower back, right shoulder, right knee and right ankle. While most of the injuries have healed, her low back pain persisted. Moore said Freedman-Lopenzo was later diagnosed with a herniated disc at L5-S1.

Freedman-Lopenzo described the pain as a burning sensation from her tailbone down both legs. She received physical therapy for an extended period and took various pain medications because she did not want to undergo surgery. Ultimately, after the pain did not subside, she relented and opted for surgery.

Complicating matters, Moore explained, were tests that revealed Freedman-Lopenzo’s back pain stemmed not only from the herniated disc but also a large benign tumor discovered on her spinal cord, towards the middle of her back.

"Of course, we didn’t claim the tumor was caused by the accident," said Moore. "Obviously it was pre-existing. It’d been there for a long time. But it was completely asymptomatic until the time of the accident. It was pretty clear the accident aggravated the tumor to the point it had to be operated on."

Moore said Freedman-Lopenzo’s doctor, Dr. Stephan Lange, would not perform a fusion surgery on her herniated disc until the tumor was removed first.

Freedman-Lopenzo had the first surgery to remove the tumor, then had to recover for six months before Dr. Lange performed the fusion surgery. Moore said each procedure is considered a major surgery. The fusion surgery to alleviate pain from the herniation requires an incision in the abdomen and two incisions in the lower back. Freedman-Lopenzo had plates and screws inserted into her back to hold the fusion. She had a bone graft taken from a cadaver placed into her back, as well, as part of the surgery.

"She was cut in two different parts of her body. It was a difficult six months for her," said Moore.

Freedman-Lopenzo’s medical bills now total $142,735, according to Moore. Her doctor assessed a 20 percent permanent partial disability rating to her back.

Moore first went after the negligent driver that rear-ended his client. The driver’s insurance carrier quickly settled with Moore for the $20,000 policy limit. Moore did not say who that driver was and the case is completely resolved.

Moore then filed a lawsuit on Freedman-Lopenzo’s behalf against her own insurance carrier for underinsured motorist benefits because her damages far exceeded the negligent driver’s policy limit.

The plaintiff’s attorney said there was not much in the way of settlement talks between him and Trumbull Insurance Co., which is part of The Hartford. Moore said he filed an offer of compromise for $900,000, an amount he doesn’t recall budging from; he said the insurance company did not offer much more than $400,000.

Since liability was not in question, the case moved forward to a hearing on damages before Judge Mark Gould in Hartford Superior Court last month. The hearing lasted one day with Freedman-Lopenzo and her mother, Susan Freedman, an attorney at Shipman & Goodman, testifying.  

Freedman-Lopenzo testified that she still remains in daily pain despite the fusion surgery. She moved back in with her mother, who took care of her during and after the surgeries.

Freedman-Lopenzo said prior to the back injury, she was very active and athletic. She liked to swim, scuba dive, ski, bike, horseback ride and go for walks. She enjoys children, and she’s upset she can no longer pick up her godchild and is fearful she’ll be unable to have children of her own. She now has pain any time she stands up or sits for too long.

Freedman-Lopenzo told the judge that her injuries have changed her mentally, saying she used to be much happier and carefree. Now, she said, "life will never be the same."

Her mother also testified that her daughter used to be athletic and active, was good with children and that her life has changed dramatically since the accident.

The lawyer for Trumbull Insurance Co., Kirby Huget, of the Law Office of David J. Mathis in Hartford, which handles cases for The Hartford, argued that Freedman-Lopenzo’s non-economic damages were not as significant as Moore argued. Huget could not be reached for comment last week.

In a written decision released last month, Judge Gould awarded Freedman-Lopenzo $976,413. Of that amount, $850,000 was for non-economic damages.

Moore acknowledged that he had asked the judge for $1.8 million. Nevertheless, he said his client was pleased with the judge’s decision.

"Judge Gould, she thought, was very sincere and felt that he was very fair to both sides," said Moore. "Regardless of what the lawyers think about the judge’s number… the client here was satisfied."

Moore said her injury will be a "lifelong problem" for Freedman-Lopenzo.

"She’s a medical assistant which means she’s going to be on her feet a lot during the day and it creates a lot of problems for her," said Moore. "She’s had several different jobs [since the accident]. Hopefully this one is one where they can make some accommodations for her."•