There are big verdicts that simply stand on their own. And then there are others that help set new standards for future cases. A $25 million verdict handed down last week in Bridgeport Superior Court could be in the second category, according to a leading trial lawyer.
The jury award is the largest known verdict in Connecticut history for a lawsuit against the state. The verdict came at the end of a five-day trial of a man who was hit by a state police cruiser traveling, according to the plaintiffs, at 100 mph. The man lost a leg and sustained other injuries.
Even though the man, a Bridgeport restaurant owner, was found partially at fault for crossing a highway in the middle of the night, he and his lawyers will come away with a little more than $16 million. "That’s a big deal," said Jim Nugent, of Nugent & Bryant in New Haven, who was not involved in the case.
"We don’t have any other way of determining what the value of people’s misery and losses compute to unless a jury tells us," said Nugent, a former chairman of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Litigation Section. "A judge, mediator, arbitrator cannot substitute for what a jury of our peers determines is the value… [This verdict] will be a determining factor in future settlements of similar cases."
The plaintiff was represented by the personal injury firm of Stratton Faxon, which turned the case into a referendum on the conduct of a state trooper who allegedly left the scene of the crash, allowed the in-crusier video of it to be erased and then returned to the scene later to interrogate the injured man before calling for medical help.
"The man is a member of the police union, it’s virtually impossible to discipline or fire him," said attorney Joel T. Faxon. "There would be innumerable criminal charges if anybody else did this but he’s allowed to proceed with his career."
Representing the state were James E. Coyne and Colleen D. Fries, of Coyne, von Kuhn, Brady & Fries in Stratford. The attorneys declined to comment for this story.
State police spokesman Lt. Paul Vance declined to comment as well, directing questions to the state Attorney General’s Office, which is in charge of defending lawsuits against the state. The AG’s Office noted that Coyne’s firm was actually hired by the state’s insurance company, and that any decision to appeal lies with the insurer.
Nine Inches Away
It was after 2 a.m. on May 29, 2010 and Melvin Gordils, 48, a man well known in the Puerto Rican business community in Bridgeport, had just closed up one of his businesses, a restaurant called El Tropicale and was headed home. (Gordils also had a business as a contractor/builder.)
According to Faxon, while traveling northbound on the Route 8 and Route 25 connector off of Interstate 95, Gordils’ truck ran out of gas. Gordils called his wife to see if she would come pick him up. She was nursing their young child and couldn’t come. So Gordils, just a mile away from home, decided to walk.
Faxon said Gordils crossed the two northbound highway lanes and the median and was "within nine inches" of making it across the two southbound lanes when he was struck by a State Police cruiser going 100 mph without any emergency lights or sirens on.
The cruiser, driven by Trooper Darren Pavlik, an 18-year State Police veteran, struck Gordils, severing his right leg, crushing his left leg and pelvis and severely damaging his arms.
"The leg, believe it or not, made it to the hospital before the rest of Melvin’s body," said Faxon. A resident of a nearby condominium complex spotted the leg, which traveled 170 feet from the point of impact.
Faxon said Pavlik, instead of stopping to help Gordils, drove around Bridgeport, erasing evidence of the crash from the camera installed in his vehicle. He then returned to the accident scene, got out of his cruiser and checked for damages, Faxon said.
Gordils was screaming in pain.
"[Pavlik] never said ‘sorry’ or asked how he was doing," said Faxon. Instead, Faxon said the officer "interrogated" Gordils by asking why he was running across the highway and if he had been drinking.
"He was trying to establish a story that will exonerate the police officer," said Faxon.
Meanwhile, a surgeon in Fairfield, Dr. Dante Brittis, had been alerted when the severed leg arrived at the hospital. The doctor asked to be called back if someone came to claim the leg. Fifteen minutes later, Gordils arrived and, shortly after, so did Brittis. The doctor was unable to reattach the leg, as the damage was so extensive. Faxon said the doctor had to actually cut more of the leg because it was "mangled" so as to get a "clean cut."
In total, Gordils spent nine months in the hospital. He has endured 25 surgeries. Gordils’ left leg was crushed, his pelvis had to be put back together, he had massive internal bleeding in his arms that required surgery and he suffered brain damage. He now must use a wheelchair and cannot grip anything with his hands.
"He is the most catastrophically and traumatically injured client we have ever represented and I’ve represented some catastrophically injured people," said Faxon.
Since the accident, Faxon said Trooper Pavlik has changed his story about six times as to what exactly happened that night. At first, Faxon said, Pavlik claimed he was chasing another vehicle that was also going 100 mph. Faxon, however, said if that was the case, the officer should have had his lights and sirens on.
Faxon believes that the officer was speeding back to the police barracks to fill out paperwork and end his shift.
"Any competent police officer would’ve been able to document that he was chasing [another] vehicle," said Faxon. "There was no communication at all. I think in the end he fabricated a story…but he couldn’t hoodwink the jury into believing his story because it was just implausible."
Faxon noted that there were essentially no settlement talks in the case.
"The state had no interest in settling the case," said Faxon. "They offered us $1 million and the lien for [Gordils'] medical expenses was $1.2 million. They were actually asking us to give the state back an additional $200,000."
The case proceeded to trial this month in Bridgeport Superior Court before Judge Dale Radcliffe.
Defense lawyers Coyne and Fries argued that the trooper wasn’t going 100 mph, that Gordils shouldn’t have been walking across a busy highway in the middle of the night and that the plaintiff was intoxicated at the time of the accident.
"He was drunk and he chose to put himself in harm’s way," Coyne said during opening arguments. "He was in control of his own destiny."
The biggest challenge for Faxon and his law partner, Michael Stratton, was explaining tests that showed their client’s blood-alcohol level to be 0.26 — or three times the legal limit — after the accident. A state toxicologist testified for the defense about Gordils’ level of intoxication. However, during Stratton’s cross-examination, the witness acknowledged that a blood alcohol reading can be skewed when someone suffers massive tissues injuries. Even a small amount of alcohol, or none at all, can trigger a high reading, Faxon explained.
On the plaintiff’s side, a dozen witnesses testified, including an accident reconstructionist, a life care expert, an economist and family members.
After a five-day trial, the jury deliberated for three days before returning with an approximately $25 million verdict on March 12. The jury ruled that the state was 65 percent at fault for the conduct of Pavlik and that Gordils was 35 percent negligent. The comparative negligence reduced the $25 million award to roughly $16.25 million.
Specifically, the jury awarded $1.2 million for past medical expenses, $7 million for future medical expenses and $17 million for non-economic damages.
Faxon explained that his client, who has been on state assistance since the accident, needs round-the-clock care, which to this point has largely been performed by two of his children. "He needs professional assistance and with this jury award, he will be able to get that," said Faxon.•