Woman Collects $1.25 Million After Truck Sideswipe

Law Tribune File PhotoAttorney Louis Rubano said his client can't even watch a television that's bigger than 30 inches wide, or she gets the feeling that the room is spinning.

Woman Collects $1.25 Million After Truck Sideswipe

Eye and ear disorders lead to problems with balance, focus

By THOMAS B. SCHEFFEY

Lisa Puglia v. Engelwood Tire Distributors Inc.: On Sept. 6, 2006, West Haven resident Lisa Puglia was traveling on Interstate 95 in the Long Wharf area of New Haven.

She was driving in the farthest left of three lanes; a box truck driven by Barry Southworth, of New Jersey, was overtaking her from the center lane. For reasons that are not clear, Southworth, who was driving for Englewood Tire Distributors Inc., lost control in the rainy weather and struck the front passenger side of Puglia's car. The vehicle slammed into a cement barrier, and the driver briefly lost consciousness.

"He came up fast behind her in the center lane," said Puglia's lawyer, Louis Rubano, of New Haven's Lynch Traub Keefe & Errante, "She was forced violently into the barrier, causing extensive damage to the left and right side of her car. She lost consciousness for up to 35 to 45 seconds."
Police at the scene found the truck's tire tread depth was adequate. "We think something more was happening — whether he was texting, or on a cell phone — he basically denied any kind of distracted driving," Rubano said.

Puglia's immediately apparent injuries were mainly soft-tissue bruising of her ankle, her lower back, right foot, right knee and right wrist. "She tore a tendon in her right ankle and ended up having surgery on her right ankle," Rubano explained. But as time went on, the plaintiff had constant trouble with her balance and ability to focus, and ended up with an uncommon condition known as post-traumatic vision syndrome.

This manifested itself as a condition called visual midline shift syndrome. "It affects her ability to shift her gaze," Rubano said. "So if you're in a room talking, and someone walks by, and you try to keep your head straight and focus on the person walking by, she's unable to do that. If she does, the room starts to spin."

The only way to counter this effect, Puglia found, was to place frosted tape on her reading and distance glasses, so she can only see out of a small portion of the lenses. This allows her to focus and not shift her eyes from one side to the other. Puglia also suffered from photophobia, or sensitivity to light.

Her previous occupation was as a multi-media producer for Bayer Inc., making DVDs and video presentations, and earning from $52,000 to $72,000 per year. She was a 27-year veteran of this job, but lost the ability to work and to partake in many other normal activities after the accident, Rubano said.

Her eye problem was complicated by an inner ear disorder, also apparently stemming from the crash impact. "Dr. [William] Padula, her neuro-optometrist, has written many of the articles on visual midline shift syndrome. It affects her balance and sensitivity to light. She had those [taped] glasses on during the course of her mediation," Rubano said.

"She was also diagnosed with benign positional vertigo. That's when the inner crystals of the inner ear dislodge," said Rubano. "This gives the person a feeling of being off balance and spinning; [it's] an ear issue rather than an eye issue. Unfortunately she's got like the perfect storm, with two conditions that make everything twice as bad. Doctors feel that because she lost consciousness, the high impact of the collision actually affected the brain matter."

For the ear problem, Puglia has to routinely undergo EPLYS treatments. These are special exercises that require her to lie on a table in three different positions: a fetal position with her nose facing toward the ceiling; a fetal position with her nose facing to the floor; and on her back. "It's awful. What the therapist is trying to do is get the crystals in her inner ear to go back into her head. When she did [the therapy]," said Rubano, "the room was spinning so fast it occasionally caused her to vomit."

There is no surgical fix for her conditions, the attorney said. His client's actual medical damages were $86,000. The trucking company was represented by attorney Michael Schweitzer, of Esty & Buckmir, in Hamden, who did not immediately return a call for comment. "Mike had been working on the case since its inception since 2006," Rubano reported. "We were able to resolve it [last week]."

The $1.25 million settlement includes $1.17 million in non-economic damages. It's designed to cover the plaintiff's 25-year life expectancy. Puglia plans to purchase an annuity to create a lifetime cash stream, with a tax-free total payout of $1.9 million over that period.

Seeking a cure, Puglia met with a physician at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she saw an inner ear specialist, known as a vestibular neurologist. It was confirmed that there was nothing more to be done than continue the EPLYS maneuvers and make sure her glasses are taped.

The overall effects are quite serious. It prevents Puglia from reading, working on a computer, or going to the movies. At home, she can't watch a TV screen that's more than 30 inches wide.

"If you're watching a plasma 46-inch TV, the room starts to spin," Rubano explained. "She used to be an avid churchgoer. She's Catholic. But she has to watch services at home on TV with her head in a fixed position. People reading the prayer books around her in church would affect her ability to sit peacefully. Her head begins to spin."

The lawyer continued: "She can't travel anymore. Washing her hair, brushing her teeth, even the act of paying bills cause her a great distress…I don't think I'd take this condition for all the money in the world." •