Fatal Truck Ride Results in 3.2 M for Woman's Estate

Fatal Truck Ride Results In $3.2M For Woman's Estate

Plaintiff's attorney Jack Mills argued that a New Haven wholesale meat packing company had never tested its driver's skills.

Compelling video telling story of time pressure, pain leads to settlement

By THOMAS B. SCHEFFEY

Yvette Maldonado, admin. v. Ralph Fontanez and Onofrio's Fresh Cut: The story of the pre-dawn crash in rural Pennsylvania that killed 29-year-old Ivelisse Velazquez never was told in a courtroom. A 12-minute video prepared by New Haven trial lawyer Jack Mills was a big reason the case settled for $3.2 million on the eve of trial.

A single mother of a 7-year old daughter, Velazquez worked as a home care nurse and lived in the Fair Haven section of New Haven with boyfriend Ralph Fontanez. He worked for Onofrio's Fresh Cut, a New Haven meat wholesaler with 85 employees and more than $10 million in annual sales. Fontanez was a recent hire and had reason to be grateful to have his job. With a prison record for drugs, his employment opportunities were limited.

According to a settlement memo prepared by Mills, Fontanez' boss, Richard Onofrio, called him about a delivery that had to be made to central Pennsylvania on Feb 21, 2008. Fontanez had just finished 40 hours of driving, and was scheduled for a day off. He said he wasn't feeling well. But the regular driver had canceled, and Fontanez was needed. Velazquez decided to keep him company in the 2004 Freightliner box truck, which was 3,600 pounds overweight, loaded with meat and frozen soup mix.

Fontanez was under pressure. If the delivery was late, the company would be docked $300 and the driver would have a demerit that could lead to him losing his job. He wasn't using the truck's GPS system until he found he had taken the wrong road and was some 60 miles off course. Trying to make up for lost time, Fontanez was directed to a long, steep mountain road in south-central Pennsylvania coal country. The signs warned trucks to use a lower gear, and drive 15 mph.

Mills, in a pre-trial mediation paper, argued that the meat wholesale company had never complied with federal regulations requiring it to test and evaluate Fontanez's driving skills. Specifically, drivers are to be evaluated for "skill in braking, and slowing the motor vehicle by means other than braking."

The plaintiff's video showed Fontanez explaining that as he approached a stop sign at the bottom of the hill, he couldn't slow the truck at all with the brakes. In a deposition, he said he was "standing on the brakes."

He shifted into neutral and blew through the stop sign. The video cut to a Pennsylvania state trooper being asked whether shifting to neutral would help slow a vehicle. "You're freewheeling," the trooper explained. Translation: in neutral, there's no resistance caused by engine compression and gear ratios to hold down acceleration.

The video, prepared by Geomatrix Productions in New Haven, used animated maps to trace the couple's route, and shifted to a three-dimensional "Google Earth" view of final drive down the hillside road, as if photographed from a helicopter at an angle. In an inset, the viewer could see a driver's-eye view, taped by Pennsylvania state police. Geomatrix froze the video on close-ups of key roadside warning signs.

The video also showed still shots of where the truck hit an embankment and ricocheted to the opposite side of the road. Its heavy cargo shifted, leading the truck to flip over onto the passenger side. When Fontanez looked at the passenger seat, he said in a deposition, Velazquez was not there.

The trucking company and driver were defended by Hartford defense lawyer Ralph Eddy, of Regnier, Taylor, Curran & Eddy, and by David Crotta of New Haven's Mulvey, Oliver, Gould & Crotta. A key defense theory was that Velazquez leapt out of the truck in an ill-advised attempt to save herself. Three different trial judges expressed skepticism about that special defense, which was eventually disallowed. The defense also contended that truck driver Fontanez was neither negligent nor reckless.

Defense accident reconstruction expert Michael A. Cei, of Cei Smith & Associates in Wallingford, reviewed the accident report and photographs of the truck, the accident scene, weather reports and maintenance records. He reported in a May 2009 letter that the brakes were in good working order. The passenger door had opened "before the truck rolled onto its passenger side; as a result, she was either ejected from one of the collision forces or jumped from the truck before it rolled."

Fontanez, Cei concluded, "was operating the truck too fast for the conditions that existed" significantly contributing to the accident.

"I thought his report was honest," commented Mills. At the time of the crash, according to a state police accident reconstruction, the truck was estimated to be traveling 12 to 17 mph.

Shortly before trial, Bridgeport Superior Court Judge Barbara N. Bellis took a full day to mediate the case, and made great progress. But on May 20, New Haven Superior Court Judge Glenn A. Woods changed the complexion when he ruled against key defense motions and declined to allow a jury to consider the issue of Velazquez possibly contributing to her own death by jumping.

New Haven attorney Kevin Dehghani, who represents the Velazquez estate and referred the wrongful death case to Mills, said the defense's contention "was that she jumped out of the truck ... trying to save her life, and had she stayed in, she would have survived. But the judge struck all of those defenses, and left them with nothing to say. I think that was the triggering factor in them [making] an acceptable offer."

Another factor was the eyewitness accounts of several people who tried to help the dying Velazquez, who ended up near the side of the road. On the video, x-ray technician Amy Schwalm said that when she arrived on the scene the woman's left leg was "in pieces." Another volunteer, Richard Hodgson, said the culvert the woman fell into ran red with blood. Velazquez attempted to prop herself up with her arms, and eventually became numb. "Can't you see I'm dying? Leave me alone," Velazquez told Schwalm.

Attorney Eddy, who represented the primary insurance carrier, said there was strong potential testimony about Velazquez's "20 to 30 minutes of conscious pain and anguish - you don't usually have that." Previously, the top defense offer was $500,000 on an insurance policy of $4 million. Mills' video explained that the plaintiffs had entered a $4 million offer of compromise, and would be seeking $1 million in lifetime earnings plus $5 million in non-economic damages.

Mills' video also explained the plaintiffs would seek double or treble damages under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, and would look to Onofrio's Fresh Cut for judgment damages in excess of the $4 million coverage. The defense, meanwhile, had called into question Velazquez's actual earnings potential as a health care aid. As a result, by May 23, the two sides agreed on a $3.2 million settlement.