Settlement In Fatal Truck Crash

Settlement in Fatal Truck Crash

New Haven woman's estate wins $3.2M settlement in fatal truck crash

By Randall Beach, Register Staff
rbeach@nhregister.com

NEW HAVEN - Thanks in part to a cutting-edge video re-enacting the truck accident that killed Ivelisse Velazquez of Fair Haven, lawyers for her estate reached a settlement with the driver, his employer and the rental truck company totaling $3.2 million.

The settlement was worked out in Superior Court recently, just before jury selection was scheduled to begin for the trial.

When the accident occurred early in the morning of Feb. 21, 2008, in rural Pennsylvania, Velazquez was a 28-year-old home care nurse and the single mother of a daughter, Shalay, 11.

Velazquez had agreed to accompany her boyfriend, Ralph Fontanez, as he made a long-distance delivery of meat in Sunbury, Pa., for Onofrio's Fresh Cut Inc., a wholesaler in the city.

Attorneys for the Velazquez estate alleged Onofrio officials failed to properly train Fontanez and pressured him to make the long drive shortly after he had finished 40 hours of driving. Attorneys for Onofrio and Fontanez dispute the claim.

The 12-minute video, with a woman's narration, was made by Geomatrix Productions of Woodbridge. It uses animated maps to trace the truck's route and a three-dimensional Google Earth view of it careening drive down the winding mountainous road.

Geomatrix President Cathie Reese said the company recently has seen greater interest by attorneys in using videos to reach settlements or to present evidence to jurors during trials.

"People are more used to getting information in a visual way," she noted. "It has greater impact."

The video used for the Velazquez case includes photos of where the truck hit an embankment, then flipped over onto its passenger side. The truck is shown after the accident.

Also on the video are interviews with Fontanez and eyewitnesses, taken from depositions. One of the eyewitnesses was Amy Schwalm, who lived nearby. She said she heard "a big rumble and a bang," then screams.

Schwalm said when she reached the scene, she found Velazquez lying in a ditch, her left leg in pieces. When Schwalm asked how she could help, Velazquez told her, "I'm dying; leave me alone."

The video's narrator states Velazquez "died a brutal, ugly death, with 30 minutes of graphic pain and suffering."

But attorney Ralph Eddy, who with co-counsel David Crotta represented Onofrio and Fontanez, said, "The video spins this in the way most favorable to the plaintiff."

Eddy said there are many omissions and misstatements of fact on the video. For example, Eddy said Pennsylvania state troopers in depositions said the weight of the truck's cargo did not cause it to flip.

Eddy noted that if the lawsuit had gone to trial, the jury would not have seen it because it is not evidence.

"It was intended for us and the judge, to assist the plaintiff in arriving at a settlement," Eddy said.

He conceded it achieved its goal. "Obviously, it was effective in the mind of the judge who mediated the case," Eddy said of Superior Court Judge Barbara N. Bellis in Bridgeport. "She was very impressed by it."

But Eddy said the more important factor leading to the settlement was a decision on the eve of the scheduled start of the trial by Superior Court Judge Glenn A. Woods, refusing to allow a jury to consider that Velazquez might have contributed to her own death by allegedly jumping out of the truck.

"We thought we had evidence to support the conclusion she had to voluntarily step outside the truck," Eddy said. "That it was an error in judgment on her part."

John W. Mills, who with co-counsel Kevin Dehghani represented the Velazquez estate, said they believe she was wearing her seat-belt, as Fontanez stated, but was thrown out when the truck flipped over.

Dehghani said the settlement will be paid by two insurance companies: Pennsylvania Millers and Old Republic. The latter company also covered Ryder Truck Rental Inc., another defendant in the settlement. Ryder owned the truck involved in the accident; Onofrio's rented it from Ryder.

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