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.
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?
- “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.
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.
- “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!
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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