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Driver Helping Disabled Vehicle Settles for $1 Million After Merritt Parkway Crash

By CHRISTIAN NOLAN | January 07, 2016

Jeremiah Lacoille v. Joseph Defeo

Jeremiah Lacoille v. Joseph Defeo, et al.: A man who suffered 13 bone fractured when his car was rear-ended as he and friends helped a disabled vehicle on the Merritt Parkway has settled his lawsuit for just over $1 million.

On Oct. 8, 2011 at 12:43 a.m., Jeremiah Lacoille was headed north on Route 15 in Stratford near Exit 53. Lacoille, 32, was driving a 1995 Mazda. He was with two friends and they were returning from a trip to Atlanta.

Motorists in a van in front of them had run out of gas, explained Lacoille’s lawyer, Jim Nugent, of Nugent & Bryant in New Haven. Because there is very little room to the side of the parkway, the disabled van was mainly in the right travel lane. Lacoille’s friends got out to help the motorists and assisted them in pushing the van. Lacoille, who lived in New Haven at the time, slowly followed in the Mazda with its flashing lights on to warn drivers coming up from behind.

At the same time, Joseph Defeo, 28, of Stratford, was driving a 2009 Chevrolet Equinox leased to Smith & Nephew Inc., which was Defeo’s employer. Defeo was headed to his sister’s home in Milford.

Nugent explained that just as Lacoille’s friends grabbed the handle of the door to get back into the Mazda, Defeo’s vehicle plowed into the back of the car, seriously injuring Lacoille. Lacoille’s friends and Defeo were all uninjured.

Nugent said there was no evidence that Defeo was under the influence of alcohol or drugs or had been using his cell phone prior to the collision. Defeo claimed that he had encountered a small crest in the road when he saw Lacoille’s vehicle stopped directly in front of him about 100 yards away. Defeo told police he did not recall seeing any hazard lights flashing or brake lights on Lacoille’s car. Defeo claimed he applied his brakes and swerved to the left but was unable to completely avoid impact. The right front portion of his vehicle hit the left rear of Lacoille’s car. Defeo said he was driving around 60 mph.

Nugent said police did not determine who was at fault for the crash. Defeo and his employer’s insurer, Travelers, argued that Lacoille was at fault for coming to a near stop in the driving lane of the highway.

Meanwhile, the impact knocked Lacoille unconscious; he sprawled across the passenger seat, with his head resting against the passenger door. Rescue crews were called to extricate him from the vehicle. The parkway was shut down to allow emergency crews to enter it from the wrong direction.

To get Lacoille out of the vehicle, firefighters sawed the roof off of the car. He was transported to Bridgeport Hospital, where he stayed for 17 days. He first spent time in the surgical critical care unit, then moved to a regular room and finally was treated in the rehabilitation wing.

Doctors discovered that Lacoille suffered five fractures in his low back, a broken neck, a thoracic spine fracture in his mid-back area, numerous right and left rib fractures, a left shoulder fracture and a broken left foot. In addition to the broken bones, Lacoille suffered numerous internal injuries, bleeding and clotting including to his abdomen and liver. He also had a collapsed lung that caused him trouble breathing. Lacoille’s back injury also produced several herniated discs. To make matters worse, he developed a staph infection while hospitalized.

Nugent said that despite all the injuries, his client has made a nice recovery. “He continues to have neck pain but other than that he’s made a very good recovery,” the attorney said.

Doctors assessed Lacoille’s cervical spine injury with a 12 percent permanent partial disability rating. His left shoulder received a 7 percent rating.

Lacoille filed a negligence claim against Defeo. He also sued Defeo’s employer for negligent hiring, retention and supervision, as well as negligent entrustment of the vehicle. The latter count was based on DeFeo having three prior moving violations, including two speeding tickets issued within nine months of the Merritt Parkway collision.

“As a result of bringing that [negligent entrustment] claim, we were able to obtain some very interesting policies and procedures with regard to the use of the vehicle and the protocol the employees are to follow after being in a collision,” said Nugent. Namely, the plaintiff’s attorney said, the company allowed its employees to drive a company vehicle on their own personal time, which Defeo was doing when the accident occurred.

Defeo and his employer were defended in the lawsuit by Brendan Cahill, of the Law Offices of Cynthia Garraty in Hamden. Cahill did not respond to an interview request. But he initially argued that the defendants were not liable for the crash. Instead, he maintained that Lacoille was negligent because a reasonable person would not have stopped a vehicle on a dark stretch of highway, in the driving lane, and just beyond the crest of a hill.

The two sides went to mediation but were unable to reach a settlement at that time. However, as they were about to pick a jury and go to trial in New Haven Superior Court, they reached a settlement for $1,050,000.

Nugent said he was fully prepared to try the case. He even had five focus groups hear their case to help him “understand what a jury of [Lacoille’s] peers were going to do.”

The message from the focus groups, Nugent said, was that they had a strong case. “Although liability was an issue, we were very confident we were going to prevail and that the damages would be substantial,” said Nugent. He added that his client was very pleased to settle for a substantial amount and avoid going through a trial.

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