East Haven Police Blamed In $12 Million Verdict
A high school senior whose life was forever altered in 2006 when he was struck by a truck and thrown 20 feet in the air was awarded $12.2 million by a New Haven jury.
With interest stemming from an earlier settlement offer, the verdict will cost the town of East Haven $15.85 million. The plaintiff's lawyer, Michael Stratton of Stratton Faxon in New Haven, said the town's insurer was unaware of the suit until the trial started and did not intend to cover the verdict.
"It's a bad situation for the East Haven taxpayers," said Stratton.
East Haven police had detained the truck driver an hour earlier following a report of a domestic incident at a McDonald's restaurant. Police left the man's truck at McDonald's and drove him home to sober up. But after police drove off, the man walked the half-mile back to McDonald's for his truck.
Stratton said the police officers gave the man, Vlad Trnka, a break because they apparently knew him.
"It's a very outrageous thing to do," Stratton said. "They're willing to risk the public safety to do this private favor."
Personal injury lawsuits against municipalities are normally difficult to win. Public employees enjoy immunity from negligence claims in the normal course of their jobs. If an employee is using his discretion and makes a decision resulting in an accident, the town and the employee are shielded from liability. It's when an employee fails to perform a nondiscretionary—or ministerial—task that negligence claims can be made.
One of the lawyers for East Haven, Hugh Keefe of Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante, argued that the police officers made a discretionary decision in how to deal with Trnka.
"We think the evidence was pretty clear it was a discretionary act," said Keefe. "Therefore, there is no liability. It was an odd case because the guy who actually caused the accident was not a defendant and nobody called him to the stand."
It all started around midnight on Nov. 4, 2006, when a 911 dispatcher received a call from a woman in the drive-thru lane at an East Haven McDonald's. The woman complained that a man, who turned out to be Trnka, had driven up fast behind her and just missed a rear-end collision. The woman further said the man was shouting at a female passenger in the truck and appeared to be intoxicated or on drugs.