095: Her Generosity Is Overwhelming

Stella Case No. 095, Originally Published: 12 October 2005

On October 14, 2004, Barbara Connors, 75, of Medfield, Mass., was riding in a car driven by her son-in-law, Alan Hauser, 70, when they got into an accident in Old Saybrook, Conn. Their car left the road, jumped the sidewalk, went through a fence, and flew 15 feet through the air and splashed into the Connecticut River. Hauser swam to the surface and was rescued by the crew of a nearby boat, but Connors went under with the car, sinking 10 feet below the surface.

There were plenty of witnesses to the crash, and several quickly called 911 to report it. “It was the [fastest] response I’ve ever seen,” said one. “They were here in a heartbeat.” Because she was underwater, and the river’s current increased the danger, rescuers had to don special gear. Even with the time it took them to drive there and do that, Connors was pulled to the surface within 15 to 20 minutes of the accident. Still, it was too late: she had no pulse. Paramedics started CPR and revived her at the scene.

The town’s web site reveals a pretty town …with a lot of water. Yet one of the counts in the lawsuit is the town didn’t have adequate “signs” warning of the danger of the water. Well, “the sign” is apparent to any adult with a brain.

Rescuers were “very pleased with the rescue effort by all the agencies involved, as well as the citizens who helped us,” said police officer Michael Spera, who was on the scene. Connors was raced to the hospital in critical condition — and thanks to everyone’s quick action, she survived.

The next month, a ceremony was held to honor the rescuers. Connors’ daughter said her mother couldn’t attend, but wanted to thank everyone for their “very generous outpouring of generosity and support” in saving her life. Connors was in town to visit her daughter when the accident occurred.

That was then, this is now: Connors has sued not just her son-in-law, who was driving the car, but also the rescuers, alleging they “took too long” to rescue her. The suit, filed in Superior Court at New London, Conn., was filed by attorney Robert Reardon Jr. It claims the town is responsible for not installing “appropriate guardrails to stop a vehicle from going into the water” and for failing to “provide funds for the equipment needed by police divers.”

In addition, the suit names the town building inspector, its director of public works, a building official, a planner, and the Parks and Recreation Commission, for “failing to maintain a safe environment at Saybrook Point.” It also names town police chief Edmund Mosca for “failing to provide adequate staff and diving equipment.” The suit says that Connors was previously able to live on her own, but after the accident she has to be cared for in a nursing home. Presumably those responsible for saving her life should pay for that.

For their “very generous outpouring of generosity and support,” the town and rescuers are sued? Yeah, that makes sense. Rescue work, especially in water, is incredibly dangerous, and a great many rescuers, most notably in small towns, are volunteers. What sort of public policy signal is society sending when we allow them to be put them through hell after they do a GOOD job?

Sources

  • “Woman ‘Critical’ after Being Pulled from Submerged SUV”, New Haven Register, 15 October 2004.
  • “Crash Survivor Sues Rescuers, Son-in-Law”, New Haven Register, 10 August 2005.

Case Status

Indeed the case made it to court. Superior Court Judge Robert E. Beach seemed a wee bit skeptical. “Some of the claims, as pointed out by the town, appear on the surface to be somewhat farfetched,” he said in his 2007 ruling. “For example, a standard expressly pertaining to the fencing of swimming pools is referenced. Though there may be some similarities between swimming pools and the Connecticut River — both, for example, are wet — it is doubtful that the regulation will apply.”

Ya think? The old joke comes to mind, “In headlines today, researchers confirm water is wet. Film at 11:00.”

“The town defendants have moved to strike [several] counts because of qualified immunity: they claim that such decisions are discretionary and that the alleged activity fits none of the exceptions to qualified immunity,” the judge summarized. “I agree.” Also, “When individual employees are sued pursuant to common law, they are protected by the defense of traditional qualified immunity. I agree….” He similarly struck down several other counts listed in the suit.

On the other hand, he denied motions to strike several other counts in the lawsuit, which meant that a trial (or settlement) was necessary.

The question is, then what?

Then the defendants settled, though the negotiations took more than a year. Connors’ son-in-law, remember, was on the hook in addition to the rescuers, as represented by the town of Old Saybrook. My source doesn’t say what percentage of the settlement — $870,000 — was paid by Mr. Hauser (or, more likely, his auto insurance company) and what portion was paid by Old Saybrook, but the Hartford Courant noted that the town’s portion would be paid by its insurance, “Pace said” …without any mention of who “Pace” is.

Update Sources

  • “Memorandum of Decision: Connors v. Old Saybrook”, Connecticut Superior Court Judicial District of Middlesex, 29 January 2007.
  • “Settlement Reached in Lawsuit”, Hartford Courant, 9 May 2008.

The case was the 6th runner-up for the 2005 Awards.

My 2021 Thoughts on the Case

This one still irks me — that anyone would even think of suing because they weren’t rescued “fast enough.” There is no “right to rescue” just as there is no right to police protection. So how shamed was attorney Robert Reardon Jr. for bringing this lawsuit, and presiding over the nearly million-dollar settlement? Well, he refused to comment on the case to a local reporter when it was settled.

He should be absolutely ashamed of himself. Still!

Letters

Last week’s case was about a lotto player who didn’t read the rules very carefully. Lotto rules note that tickets are winners only if they’ve been validated by the lottery office. She called a telephone hotline and heard the winning numbers one week were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 — her numbers. But that was a system test, not the real winning numbers.

In the case write-up I wondered rhetorically, “how in the world did she get a lawyer to go along with [her] delusion?”

Ted, a lawyer in California: “Or, how many lawyers did she talk to before she found one fool who would file the case? There are attorneys who believe in ‘file and dial.’ That means they’ll file a case, then call the defendant’s insurer to see what will be offered for a quick settlement.”

Ed, a lawyer in Utah: “I read with amusement the story of the lottery loser suing the lottery when she thought she was a winner (with the numbers 123456? C’mon; she loses just by virtue of lack of imagination). You asked the rhetorical question at the end of how did she get a lawyer to go along with her delusion. I’m a lawyer myself. Whether as a courtesy, to avoid being named in a malpractice suit or for other reasons, we sometimes assist people in getting a case on file on the eve of the expiration of the statute of limitations (SOL) to protect their rights, even though we don’t take the case or represent the litigant. By doing so we are performing a service to that person by preserving their rights and assuring access to the courts, a valuable right worthy of being preserved (even on something as tenuous as this).

“While in retrospect (or maybe even prospectively) the case may not appear to have merit, it is not for us as lawyers to pre-judge that decision with so final an outcome as to absolutely preclude access to the courts, something the expiration of the SOL does (perhaps it’s not a coincidence the acronym SOL has a 2nd, equally applicable meaning). If, as it sounds, this is a frivolous suit, it will be dispatched soon enough by the proper authority, the court. It is beyond what a lawyer should do to take that responsibility on him- or herself. I don’t think it equally fair to fault the lawyer for helping someone make sure a SOL doesn’t expire.”

I certainly understand Ed’s point, but I disagree that there’s no ability, let alone responsibility, for a lawyer to pre-judge a case: you all do it every day! It could well be that the attorney in this case did tell the plaintiff she “had no case” and grudgingly drafted the filing for her for a flat fee to help preserve her rights, but I don’t see any duty to do so. But one point you made figures: I’m sure some lawyers do cower in the face of being sued (for malpractice) by their fellows!

Allena in California: “This latest Stella is absolutely the best yet. I’m not certain what outrage could possibly trump this craven imbecile for dumbness, but I’ve no doubt that if such an occurrence should come to light, you will be the one shining the flashlight. I’m thinking perhaps I should go back and sue my mother because my tooth fairy only left a dime, while everyone else’s left a quarter. Thanks for making me blow Pinot Grigio out my nose.”

Yet not everyone agrees — sort of!

Matt in California: “I disagree with you about the outcome of the case, but agree about the magnitude. Regardless of the disclaimers that the lottery folks may have had, a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would have gotten excited and then disappointed, just as she did. The lottery folks’ lack of care caused this and thus should pay for it in the amount of ten dollars.”

Steve in Missouri: “Is it just me, or is it a reasonable expectation that, when calling the (presumably official) Tennessee Powerball hotline, one would get the (presumably official) Tennessee Powerball winning numbers? Perhaps this lady did overreact, but the fact remains that the Tennessee Lottery screwed up.”

But Steve (and Matt), it’s because humans are involved, and because humans can screw up, that the lottery adopted the rules that they did — at least in part. Quite simply, because of possible mistakes (and, obviously, because of possible fraud), the rules require a ticket to be validated before it can be considered a winner.

Also because things are complex: yes, she called the (presumably official) Tennessee Lottery Powerball hotline …to get the numbers that were chosen that day, as noted, in Iowa, which isn’t terribly close to Tennessee. Bottom line: them’s the rules; that’s what you agree to by playing. The plaintiff played, but then wants an exception to the rules? Huh uh, baby.

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11 Comments on “095: Her Generosity Is Overwhelming

  1. My question is why didn’t her son in law help Mom out of the car? She’s only 5 years older, she didn’t know to unbuckle her belt and get out?? I don’t think she should have sued anyone. And if she was able to live by herself and get along just fine before the accident, then again, why not get out!

    Oh, I can think of many reasons. Panic is obvious, but maybe she hit her head a little and was dazed. -rc

    Reply
    • Randy, feel free to delete my first response. It was knee jerk and not really thought out. lol. In hindsight, it seems a silly comment. I do think her son in law should have helped her out, but perhaps there was some reason the article didn’t mention. Dazed and panic were common sense and something I should have realized.

      Nah, don’t worry about it. It IS a question I’m sure others will have. If nothing else, the dude was 70, so it’s pretty remarkable he was able to save himself. But that’s just the thing: disregarding morals, since this site is about legal issues, did he have a legal duty to help her? I don’t think so. -rc

      Reply
  2. Case 095: I’m surprised she didn’t try suing the manufacturer of the vehicle. After all, if it hadn’t been capable of going so fast it could go airborne for 15 feet (was this a prototype Jetsons flying car) it might not have reached the water.

    Reply
  3. Throw Barbara Connors back into the river and let her save herself. I’m sure that her son-in-law isn’t driving her anywhere anymore. Also, did you notice that her son-in-law is only 5 years younger than her?

    Yep. -rc

    Reply
    • If she is suing her son-in-law isn’t she also in essence suing her daughter, since their finances would be presumably intertwined?

      Yes. While it’s true it would be paid by his/their insurance, you can bet their rates would go up. -rc

      Reply
  4. Well, the attorney indirectly acknowledges you: “he has always been recognized for his work as a trial lawyer.” An appearance in the Stella Awards is recognition, right?

    Assuming that is the same guy (and not, for instance, his father), yes indeed. -rc

    Reply
  5. I wonder if her insurance company made her sue to try & reclaim their money?

    No. If the insurance company wanted to sue, they could do it themselves. -rc

    Reply
    • I’ve heard that this actually happens with relative frequency, but not being American I’ve only got anecdotal evidence as to that. I’m quite curious what the reality is; how many people in America, if any, MUST file a lawsuit to be compensated by insurance?

      Reply
      • Normally none. All the usual items like damage to the car and medical expenses would automatically have been paid by the son-in-law’s insurance, assuming that they had appropriate insurance. A certain amount of liability insurance (for damage to others) is usually required by the state in order to register the car. It is up to the car owner if they want to insure the car for damage to it or other optional coverages.

        Cities carry insurance that covers any time they are sued. This is what you hear about in the news. That insurance reimburses the city when they have to pay someone.

        But that’s normal: the son-in-law’s insurance certainly paid out something when he was sued over this case. In other words, it wasn’t him doing the suing, just like it isn’t the city that does the suing. Neither filed suit to satisfy any insurance requirements, and I’d be pretty surprised to see that as a part of any insurance contract that doesn’t cover something extraordinary. -rc

        Reply
        • Laws and insurance differ by state, at a minimum. I have seen (and effectively had to sign) contracts allowing a hospital or insurance company to sue “on my behalf”. (I don’t think they actually did sue; it seemed to be boilerplate). On the other hand, I remember having to answer all sorts of stupid questions about a back injury that were clearly intended to find someone else to stick with the bill.) I have had employers warn me (and co-workers) that our health insurance did not cover any injuries related to car crashes, since that should be covered by auto insurance. (To my knowledge, if this was actually true and enforced, the insurance companies and hospitals tended to work it out among themselves.)

          Of course, the fact that I wasn’t personally aware of a particular kind of abuse doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I have seen a news story about a lawsuit to prevent insurance companies from working it out like that, because auto-insurance companies were charged higher rates than health-insurance companies, and a health provider corporation wanted the higher rates.

          Reply

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