Cyclist's Widow Awarded Nearly $2.3 Million

Former Honduran doctor killed by hotel van at New Haven intersection

CHRISTIAN NOLAN

By The Connecticut Law Tribune

01-10-2013

Gregoria Campos, et al. v. Robert Coleman, et al.: The family of a West Haven man who was struck and killed by a hotel van has been awarded nearly $2.3 million.

On Sept. 15, 2008, at 6:43 p.m. José Mauricio Campos, 52, was riding a bicycle through a New Haven intersection, when he was struck by a 15-passenger van driven by Robert Coleman, who shuttled patrons to and from the nearby La Quinta Inn.

"The van threw him 50 feet, he hit the pavement and ended up with massive head injuries," said plaintiffs attorney Donn Swift, of Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante in New Haven. Campos was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital, underwent emergency surgery and died three days later.

"No one saw [exactly] what happened at the intersection," Swift said. The attorney said a woman walking her dog saw Campos, wearing a bright yellow jersey, pass by on his bike. She also said she noticed the oncoming van but was not close enough to directly see the collision.

There were no passengers on the van at the time, said Swift. Coleman had gone home to eat dinner and was on his way to pick up some hotel guests. Another witness claims to have heard Coleman talking on his cell phone, and allegedly saying: "I hit someone. I have to hang up now." Coleman was seen exiting the van holding the phone but not talking on it.

Swift said Coleman claims he was going 25 to 30 mph. A witness said he may have been going 40 mph. Swift said Coleman did, in fact, stop just before the intersection before proceeding forward and striking Campos, who reportedly tried to swerve at the last moment. "There's no evidence he was flying through the stop sign," said Swift.

Police, following an investigation, did not charge Coleman. However, Swift said Coleman did have alcohol in his system, though well under the legal limit of 0.08. "We had a medical doctor say it's enough to impair judgment and peripheral vision," said Swift. "Coleman testified that he never saw the bike operator until impact. So that was another issue we had before the jury."

Gregoria Campos initially hired attorney Carlos Candal, who in turn brought in Swift. For trial, Campos also hired John W. "Jack" Mills, of the Mills Law Firm in New Haven.

Campos' wife sued Coleman and La Quinta Inn for wrongful death and loss of consortium. Swift said the crux of the case focused on Coleman's speed, cell phone use and the fact that there was alcohol in his system.

Defense lawyers challenged the testimony of two doctors regarding the blood alcohol levels, since it was within the legal limit for driving. The defense made a pretrial motion to disallow the testimony. It was denied by Superior Court Judge Terence Zemetis.

Defense lawyers further argued that Campos could have prevented his own death by wearing a helmet. State law does not require adults to wear helmets while riding a bicycle, and the judge prevented the defense from making that argument.

At trial, the defense, led by John Kiernan, of Bonner Kiernan in Boston, contested liability, arguing that Campos was responsible for the crash. They said he had violated the state's stop sign statute by proceeding into the intersection when it was not reasonably safe to do so.

The plaintiffs countered with 21 witnesses, many of whom were character witnesses.

"Since [the jury] were to assess the loss of life, we wanted to present who he was," said Swift. "Some of the testimony was very effective; the jury was crying at times. His three sons testified, as did his wife. His youngest [son] was 16 when it happened; he's now in college." Swift said the couple also had two older boys who are out of college and are now in their mid-20s.

Also testifying were member of Saint Louis Church in West Haven, where Campos had been an active parishioner. The Rev. Hugh Vincent Dyer noted that church members flocked to the hospital to support Campos and his family after the accident.

"When one of the witnesses was asked to describe Mr. Campos in a few words, she testified that the most appropriate term was 'valuable,'" said Swift. "She explained his value to his wife and children and also his value to the community that he served at every opportunity."

Campos was from Honduras and came to the U.S. in the 1980s with his wife and the three boys. A medical doctor in Honduras, he did not immediately pursue that career in the U.S. Campos worked various jobs while learning English. Swift said that just prior to the crash, Campos had begun studying for the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination, the first step toward becoming a U.S. doctor.

A witness presented evidence as to Campos' potential loss of earnings had he achieved that goal.

Coleman, meanwhile, testified at trial in ankle shackles, though they weren't visible to the jurors. In the time between the crash and the trial, Coleman was convicted of robbery and was serving time in prison. Swift said it was his second felony conviction.

The two sides were unable to reach a settlement agreement prior to the jury's verdict, despite going to mediation. Swift was seeking somewhere in the $2 million to $3 million range. Not until the jury began deliberations, he said, did the defendants' offer even come close, at $1.7 million. At that point, Swift said, Gregoria Campos did not want to settle.

The trial lasted more than two weeks and jurors deliberated for two days before deciding that Coleman was 58 percent liable for Campos' death and Campos himself was 42 percent at fault. The jury awarded $2,948,000 for the wrongful death claim and $1 million for loss of consortium. When factoring in comparative negligence, the Campos family was left with just under $2.3 million.

The defense team, which also included Kenneth Naide, also of Bonner Kiernan, and Stephen P. Fogarty, of Halloran & Sage in Westport, has filed a post-trial motion to set aside the verdict. It has also requested a new trial.

Kiernan, the lead defense lawyer, said La Quinta management was "reviewing all of their appellate options at this juncture." He declined to discuss the case further.

Despite the verdict and the time that has passed since the crash, Swift said Campos' widow is still grieving. "They did everything together," said Swift. "She lost her best friend and her husband. She testified that she still has days she'd wake up crying because of the loss.

"She wanted to have justice done," continued Swift. "The whole case [the defendants] were blaming it all on her husband. From that perspective, she was satisfied with the verdict because it gave them justice."