Verdicts and Settlements

Delco Mediation Yields $2.5 Million Resolution Plaintiff Suffered Brain Injury as Passenger in Car Crash

December, 1998

Michael A. Riccardi

After non-binding arbitration before Philadelphia lawyer and mediator Thomas Rutter, a Delaware County personal injury action was settled for $2.5 million last week, a lawyer in the case said.

Plaintiff Frederick Matthew Catona, 19 at the time of the crash, suffered severe brain injury as a passenger in a one-car accident that happened in the early morning hours of March 4, 1995. The defendant driver, Ross Martin, lost control of a Saab 900 auto while rounding a curve and struck a tree, according to plaintiffs’ counsel Eric G. Zajac of Weinstein, Goss, Schleifer, Eisenberg, Winkler, Rothweiler, & Ostroff.

The car driven by Martin, who pled guilty to driving under the influence and reckless driving, rolled over on its roof and slid 50 feet, Zajac said. Catona, a front seat passenger, was found with his feet under the car and with severe head trauma.

Defense counsel for Martin was Louis Bricklin of Bennett Bricklin & Saltzburg.

The crash took place after a party near Wallingford, Delaware County, at which beer was served. Both Catona and Martin were under the age of 21 at the time of the party. Zajac said that discovery revealed that the parents of the hosts were away on vacation, and that the party was held for the 21st birthday of twins residing at the address.

Zajac said the homeowners insurance for the Wallingford property yielded $250,000 to the settlement fund. The Rutter arbitration, which was arranged through the firm ADR Options, found that the driver’s insurer for Martin should contribute $2.25 million to settling the case. Martin, Zajac said, was covered by an excess “umbrella” policy issued to his father.

Catona’s injuries include axonal shear injury to the brain, resulting in cognitive and memory impairments. He was in a coma for two weeks and hospitalized for 24 days following the injury, requiring ventilatory support. Until May of 1995, the plaintiff was an in-patient at a rehabilitation center, where he was retrained in basic motor functions and underwent cognitive remediation, Zajac said.

He has no memory of the accident in which he was hurt or of the events of the evening. Martin, the defendant driver, also stated in a police report that he had no recollection of where he was going to or coming from at the time of the accident.

Catona, a college sophomore when he was hurt, had been a high school soccer player on a state championship team and had been offered collegiate scholarships to play the sport, Zajac said. The injuries have ended his academic career and limited his vocational prospects.

The key issue at mediation was comparative negligence for the plaintiff having placed himself at risk by getting into a car with an intoxicated driver, Zajac said.

“The plaintiff’s investigation revealed that guests at the party did not observe any visible intoxication on the part of the driver when he left the party,” Zajac said in a description of the case. “The defense relied on the police report, which showed that the driver had a strong odor of alcohol about his person at the accident scene, and also that the defendant’s speech was slurred and that his eyes were bloodshot.”

The defense also argued that Catona at least should have known that the driver was impaired, especially since they had been drinking together as social friends in the past.

Part of Catona’s presentation to Rutter was a videotape showing the young man in athletic competition, tape of the accident scene and wreckage of Martin’s Saab and the plaintiff while being treated for his severe injuries, Zajac said.

Seat-belt defect case settles

1997

Eric Zajac represented the estate of a young girl who was a passenger in a car driven by a friend. The vehicle had been designed and equipped with a shoulder harness and lap belt that were not integrated, meaning that although the shoulder harness automatically engaged when the occupant shut the door, the lap belt had to be manually secured. The client was an 11-year-old girl sitting in the front passenger seat. Information showed that the manufacturer knew that occupants – especially youngsters – were prone to ignore or to forget about the manual lap belt and rely on the shoulder harness alone. This reliance lulls the user into a false sense of security, because a front end collision can cause the occupant to “submarine” under the shoulder harness, which can result in fatal neck injuries. An integrated seat belt system solves the problem of ignoring or forgetting about the manual lap belt. The case settled for a confidential sum.

The specific terms and conditions of settlement are confidential.