The state of Connecticut is set to pay out $6.25 million to the estate of a couple who was killed years ago when a limb from at 70-foot tree fell on their vehicle on the Merritt Parkway in Westport. The couple was killed on June 9, 2007, and a decade-long case would follow. At the time, their seven- and nine-year-old sons were in the back seat. James and William were raised by a paternal uncle and his wife in Hartford.
The three-page settlement agreement was filed with the General Assembly by the state attorney general and signed by state attorneys for the sons of Dr. Joseph Stavola and his wife, attorney Jeanne Serocke-Stavola. The legislature will now decide whether to back the proposed terms, reject the settlement or do nothing. If the third option is selected, the terms will be automatically approved after thirty days. From there the settlement would be filed, and the money would be funded by taxpayers’ dollars.
A $15 million claim for economic and wrongful death damages was originally submitted to the state’s Office of the Claims Commissioner in 2008. Prosecuting attorney David G. Hill filed the lawsuit because in the state of Connecticut, ‘sovereign immunity’ is granted against most lawsuits. A trial has been scheduled for March 14, 2018, in Hartford Superior Court should the agreement be rejected.
The decade-long case took so much time to reach a settlement in part because it sat in the Claims Commissioner’s office for three years, from 2008 until 2011, when J. Paul Vance Jr. eventually inherited it after being appointed as Claims Commissioner by Governor Dannel P. Malloy. Vance gave his approval for Hill to file the pending lawsuit in 2011.
However, even then, the waiting period continued when a legal defect in Vance’s decision to permit the lawsuit to go forward needed correcting. Vance quit in 2016 to return to private law practice and was replaced by Christy Scott of West Hartford. Only then did things begin to accelerate.
In its claim, the prosecution argued that the state failed to do maintenance and proper inspection on the day the couple passed, and former meteorologist Brad Field was called to testify about how the weather was that day. Another expert, Terry Tattar, was also set to speak, as were state and local police officers and personnel from the Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner.
Court documents indicated that the couple sustained “gruesome [and] crushing injuries.” Documents also stated that a Newington actuary was prepared to say the estates of each of the deceased parents had suffered losses in excess of $1.8 million. With the approval of the settlement’s terms, the survivor’s must agree to “completely release and forever discharge” the state and its officials “from any and all past, present or future…claims” related to the incident.
Both sides have agreed that “this stipulated judgment represents a compromise solution, and does not constitute an admission of liability, violation of any common law…or any negligence [or] wrongdoing,” as evidenced in a joint statement. Both parties are also hoping they will finally be able to put the decade-long litigation behind them.