7 Years After Couple Was Killed By Falling Tree On Parkway, Family Finally Sues State

Case Was Delayed As Plaintiffs First Had To Win Claims Commissioner's OK To Bring Action Against State

Merritt Parkway

A 2007 file photo of Connecticut's Merritt Parkway. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times / February 20, 2007)

A 70-foot tree fell on a car driving down the Merritt Parkway in Westport in 2007, killing a husband and wife before the eyes of their 7- and 9-year old sons, who were seated behind them.

Now — after a seven-year delay caused largely by the state's "sovereign immunity" system for winnowing out legal claims against it — relatives of physician Joseph J. Stavola and attorney Jeanne C. Serocke-Stavola have finally filed a lawsuit against the state in Hartford Superior Court for potentially millions of dollars in damages.

The March 28 lawsuit provides another example of the complicated system that people have to navigate if they want to sue the state for financial damages. Plaintiffs must first request that the Connecticut claims commissioner waive the "sovereign immunity" that is granted by law to the state government to shield it against being sued.

Many claimants never get bring their cases to Superior Court. In a much-publicized example, state Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. denied permission last year for Charla Nash to sue the state over injuries from a brutal 2009 chimpanzee attack — and, in recent weeks, the state legislature denied Nash's appeal from Vance's decision.

However, Vance did grant permission for the family of the Merritt Parkway victims to sue the state. On April 1, 2013, he ruled that the facts of the case met the legal standard "that the State of Connecticut could be liable if it were a private person."

Glastonbury lawyer David G. Hill could not be reached for comment late last week on why it took nearly a year to initiate the suit.

If the lawsuit runs its course in court — that is, if it isn't settled or dismissed early, and goes to trial — the seven years that have elapsed since the 2007 tragedy could conceivably stretch close to a decade.

Hill's court papers didn't specify the amount of damages being sought, and used only a legally required minimum figure of $15,000 "or more." However, documents presented at a 2012 hearing before the claims commissioner listed amounts of:

•$6 million on behalf of the state of Joseph Stavola, who was 46 when he died.

•$5 million on behalf of the estate of his wife, who was 44.

• $2 million each on behalf of sons James and William Stavola, who now are in their teens.

Whether those are still the amounts being claimed is unknown.

Plaintiffs in the suit are James Horan, executor of the estates of the couple from Pelham Manor, N.Y., and John Stavola of Glastonbury, Joseph's brother and guardian of James and William. Defendants are listed as the State of Connecticut and its commissioner of transportation, James P. Redeker.

"James and William Stavola witnessed their parents' tragic death from the back seat and sustained significant physical and emotional injuries as a result of having done so," the lawsuit says.

"Defendants had a duty to use reasonable care to keep its property in a condition that did not endanger motorists like the Stavola family," it continues. "As part of that duty, [they] also had a duty to inspect and/or ensure that the trees on its property were maintained in a reasonably safe condition."

The pine tree that fell was not safe, but was in "defective condition" because of decay in its trunk, the suit says.

The office of the Attorney General George Jepsen will represent the state in court, as it did in the three-day hearing at the office of the claims commissioner in 2012.

"It's our responsibility to defend the state," said Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn, although "our sympathies go out to the family for this awful tragedy."

Tree Hit Windshield

In many ways, the court action is likely to replay arguments made in documents submitted to the claims commissioner. According to that file, the Stavola family was driving south on the parkway about 9:15 p.m. on June 9, 2007, in a Volvo XC90 SUV when the tree toppled from about 35 feet off the roadway and 15 feet up an embankment and smashed through the windshield.

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