Truck Driving Instructor Awarded $580K

Connecticut Law Tribune: Truck Driving Instructor Awarded $580K After Car Crash:
Truck Driving Instructor Awarded $580K After Car Crash
Connecticut Law Tribune
Monday, April 23, 2012 Copyright 2012, ALM Properties, Inc.

Truck Driving Instructor Awarded $580K After Car Crash, Back injuries led to verdict, which was reduced by insurance policy limits


“Carolyn Champagne-Haire v. Dorma J. Hughes, et al.: A truck driving instructor who was injured in a Rockville car crash was recently awarded nearly $580,000 by a jury, though because of insurance policy limits she will actually receive much less.

Carolyn Champagne-Haire, 50, of Vernon, was traveling on Union Street in Rockville on the morning of Oct. 27, 2006, according to her lawyer, Jason L. McCoy, also of Vernon. At the time, Champagne-Haire was working as an instructor for the New England Tractor Trailer Training School.

Another driver, Dorma J. Hughes, suddenly pulled out into the busy traffic of Union Street and collided head-on with Champagne-Haire’s vehicle. Fortunately, neither vehicle was moving at a high rate of speed, so the collision itself wasn’t all that bad, McCoy noted.

The attorney said that Hughes was clearly at fault for the crash and that she was an uninsured driver. “This person pulled out and basically drove into [Champagne-Haire] head-on,” said McCoy. “It wasn’t a terrible car wreck. But obviously the problems she’s had [since the accident] were really bad.”

McCoy said Champagne-Haire has had back problems ever since the crash. After an MRI a couple years after the accident revealed the extent of her injuries, she ultimately needed a lumbar fusion surgery.

Immediately after the crash, Champagne-Haire went to a chiropractor for her back pain. The same chiropractor had previously treated her for neck and back pain. A longtime tractor-trailer driver, McCoy said his client was prone to having a sore neck from long hours on the road.

After eventually getting discharged from treatment by the chiropractor, Champagne-Haire stopped seeking any medical attention for a year-and-a-half, as McCoy noted that she devoted much of her time caring for an ailing husband who had heart problems.

However, McCoy said during that entire time, Champagne-Haire would take Advil during the day and Tylenol PM at night to cope with all the back pain she continued to experience.

Finally, she sought out an orthopedic doctor in Hartford. An MRI revealed the extent of damage to her low back and the need for a fusion surgery. Her surgery date was delayed, however, because she fell and broke her ankle. She had the fusion surgery roughly a year before her late 2011 trial.

McCoy explained that because the negligent driver, Hughes, was uninsured, he had to name Allstate Insurance, Champagne-Haire’s car insurance carrier, as a party to the lawsuit in order to recover underinsured motorist benefits.

Allstate was represented in the case by Peter Menard of the Law Office of Mark S. Gilcreast in Hartford. Menard did not return calls seeking comment.

McCoy said defense attorney Menard acknowledged that Hughes was negligent in causing the crash, but he argued that all of Champagne-Haire’s back problems pre-dated the accident. He further argued that any pain she did have as a result of the crash must have gone away if she was discharged by the chiropractor and did not seek other treatment for an additional 18 months before seeing the orthopedist, Dr. W. Jay Krompinger.

Prior to trial, McCoy said, the insurance company attorney offered just $16,000 to settle the case.
The case went to trial in the Judicial District of Tolland at Rockville over three days in December, with Judge Robert B. Shapiro presiding.

McCoy said the testimony of Champagne-Haire’s witnesses were crucial. They included a supervisor at the tractor-trailer driving school and a kindergarten teacher for whom Champagne-Haire had served as a homeroom mom. The plaintiff has three children, McCoy noted.

McCoy said the kindergarten teacher explained how she could tell that Champagne-Haire was in pain in the classroom on the day of the crash. She also described how in the following days and weeks Champagne-Haire had a great deal of difficulty handling the young, energetic children. The witness went on to detail all the types of movements and bending that gave Champagne-Haire trouble in the classroom.

The kindergarten teacher told the jury that Champagne-Haire never showed any signs of back discomfort prior to the accident in her interactions with the children.

The supervisor at the truck-driving school also testified that Champagne-Haire was an exemplary employee prior to the crash.

McCoy said the witness from the training school said something to the effect of “she was like our best instructor and just went downhill after this.”

The predominantly female jury (only one male) came back with a verdict of $579,943. Of that amount, $400,000 was for non-economic damages. McCoy noted that Champagne-Haire may need additional back surgery.

“I don’t think the arguments of a pre-existing condition really went any place” with the jury, said McCoy.

After the verdict, Menard, the defense lawyer, filed a motion to set aside the verdict and have a new trial; Judge Shapiro turned down that motion last month. McCoy’s motion requesting interest and attorney fees was also denied by the judge.

Because Champagne-Haire’s uninsured motorist coverage policy limit was $100,000, Judge Shapiro last month ruled that despite the jury verdict of nearly $580,000, Allstate had to pay only the $100,000.

Overall, McCoy said his client was pleased, as the award will pay off liens from medical providers and greatly exceeds the $16,000 the defense offered to settle the case — or the $40,000 to $50,000 the plaintiffs would have likely accepted to settle the case pre-trial. “She’s a nice lady,” said McCoy. “It was a good result. She was happy.”•”
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