What started out as a routine domestic violence call five years ago has led to a $10 million settlement against the City of New Haven for a former police officer who was left paralyzed in a crash.
It was almost 11:30 at night on Sept. 9, 2008 when the call came in to New Haven police about a domestic dispute.
That sort of call was business as usual for Sgt. Dario Aponte and Officer Diane Gonzalez, who, in separate vehicles, were closest to the incident. Their two cruisers collided in a downtown intersection.
In the blink of an eye, the call became anything but ordinary. The large amount of the settlement, among the highest against the city in its history, was reached because of the large price tag for medical bills the surviving officer has incurred. So far, Gonzalez has rung up $2.5 million in treatment for her injuries which require around the clock care. She is expected to incur millions more.
Aponte died from his injuries. Gonzalez barely survived. The police investigation that followed did not access blame on either officer. But in the legal analysis that was conducted by the plaintiff's legal team, Gonzalez's lawyers said Aponte was found to have been more at fault in the crash.
Gonzalez, 52, is now a quadriplegic, in a semi-conscious state. Gonzalez and her family, as conservators, sued Aponte's estate and the city of New Haven. Rather than go to trial, Gonzalez agreed to a settlement agreement with the defendants.
"All of the parties pushed more towards settlement than going to a full blown trial, which is why we agreed to mediate the case," said attorney Shari Murphy, of Branford, who represented Gonzalez and her family.
"This was a case we targeted for settlement as soon as it was brought," said Thomas Gerarde, of Howd & Ludorf in Hartford, who represented Aponte's estate and the city of New Haven in the lawsuit.
According to Murphy, the crash occurred at the intersection of Chapel Street and East Street. She said Gonzalez was traveling east on Chapel Street while Aponte was traveling north on East Street. As Gonzalez neared the intersection with East Street, she turned while Aponte sped through the red light and crashed into her cruiser.
Aponte,43, had served with the New Haven Police Department for 17 years and had been promoted to sergeant not long before the crash. He left behind his wife and two children.
Gonzalez, unconscious, was rescued from her police cruiser and taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital where she remained in critical condition for weeks. She stayed in the hospital for a month-and-a-half.
Doctors soon discovered the severity of Gonzalez's injuries. She suffered a fractured skull and traumatic brain injury, a broken neck, shoulder and arm, and had respiratory failure requiring chest intubation.
Murphy said the fractures were treated non-surgically with braces.
Gonzalez was rendered a quadriplegic, meaning complete paralysis from the neck down, and has no bladder or bowel function. She is in a semi-conscious vegetative state and is almost exclusively tube fed.
"It's been very difficult on the family," said Murphy.
Gonzalez was divorced at the time of the accident. She has three children and two grandchildren.
"The family takes care of Diane with the help of nursing and VNA's," said Murphy. Her sister is her primary care taker."
Specifically, Gonzalez's care is overseen by her internist, Dr. Marianne Vahey and she receives visiting nurse services six days a week along with 24-hour certified nursing assistant services.
In her home, Gonzalez has a customized wheelchair, a hospital bed with an air mattress and other machines and bedding supports.
Murphy explained that a state police investigation following the crash concluded that both Aponte and Gonzalez were at fault for the collision and would not assess one driver more responsible than the other. Both drivers were going fast though it is unknown specifically how fast. Modules in each cruiser that could reveal such information were destroyed in the crash.
Murphy said that police with their lights and sirens on must still proceed carefully in traffic through intersections of red lights. She said the state police's conclusion was "neither of them slowed down to proceed safely through" the intersection.
Murphy said witnesses to the crash were conflicted as to who had a green light. Some witnesses believed Gonzalez had the green light. Others thought Aponte did. The credibility of those witnesses would have been examined closely had the case gone to trial, Murphy said.
Gerarde, the defense lawyer, said their own separate accident reconstruction revealed that Aponte was the one who ran the red light, causing the accident.
"The initial state police report said both were going fast and Diane Gonzalez was not without fault," said Gerarde. "But if you had to pick one versus the other, it tilts in favor of Diane Gonzalez being less responsible than Dario Aponte.
"It would've been a plaintiff's verdict any way you slice it, possibly reduced by Diane Gonzalez's own conduct," added Gerarde.
In addition to the main lawsuit, the city of New Haven was also an intervening plaintiff against Gonzalez seeking reimbursement of funds paid out through workers' compensation. Attorney Anne Kelly Zovas, of Pomeranz, Drayton and Stabnick in Glastonbury, handled that aspect of the case for the city of New Haven.
Murphy explained that after the accident, workers' compensation had spent over $3 million to Gonzalez for medical bills and lost pay. As such, workers' compensation placed a lien on Gonzalez for reimbursement after her lawsuit was resolved.
All of the parties to the case then proceeded to a mediation before Thomas P. Barrett.
"It was a very difficult case to settle," said Murphy. "There were a lot of aspects of the claim that needed to be taken into consideration."
Murphy said a settlement for $10 million was reached first with the city of New Haven, which needed final approval from several parties, including the probate court and insurance carriers. From there, Murphy settled the workers' compensation lien on Gonzalez for $1,625,000, meaning of the $10 million settlement, that amount was paid back.
Murphy said it took most of the summer to wrap everything up.
Initially after filing her lawsuit, Murphy said the city of New Haven offered $1 million to settle. Murphy noted that Gonzalez's medical bills are roughly $2.5 million now.
Gerarde said the damages could have been higher if Gonzalez had a longer life expectancy.
"In cases where we have a catastrophically injured person, the economic damages can be several hundred thousand dollars each year," explained Gerarde. "As a life expectancy shortens, the amount of economic damages gets lower. In our case, life expectancy was in the neighborhood of 20 years or so and it was reduced to seven years because of these injuries."•