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$12 Mil. Accident Verdict for Woman Hit by Stolen Car

Gina Passarella, The Legal Intelligencer

March 4, 2011

A Philadelphia jury awarded a woman more than $12 million after her car was hit from behind by a stolen vehicle, pushing her into oncoming traffic where she was then hit by a work van coming the opposite direction.

Just how much of that $12.1 million Sheri Mee will see is unclear considering that, of the three defendants, one settled for $100,000, another settled for an undisclosed amount and the driver of the stolen vehicle most likely won’t be able to pay the judgment, according to an attorney in the case.

In Mee v. Fabrizio , Mee sued the driver of the stolen vehicle, Michael Fabrizio Jr.; the company that owned the work van, Johnson Controls Inc.; and the owner of the stolen vehicle, Thomas Fitzpatrick, because he left his car unlocked and running with the keys in the ignition, according to court documents and Mee’s attorney, Thomas F. Sacchetta of Sacchetta & Baldino in Media, Pa.

Mee settled prior to trial with car owner Fitzpatrick for his motor vehicle insurance policy limits of $100,000 through Hartford Financial Services Group, according to a joint tortfeasor release.

Johnson Controls Inc., which was sued along with its driver Richard Evans and JCI Building Efficiency, settled during the trial, according to the trial worksheet. Sacchetta said he couldn’t disclose the amount of the settlement, but said it was enough to make his client happy despite the fact that it took out the possibility of the company being held jointly and severally liable for a jury verdict against Fabrizio, who Sacchetta said was unlikely to be able to pay out the damages.

Judge Esther R. Sylvester entered a directed verdict against Fabrizio on the issues of negligence and factual cause of injury. On Feb. 24, the jury came back with a verdict on damages against Fabrizio in the amount of $12,103,322.

The biggest portion of that verdict, or $3.49 million, was for future medical expenses. The jury also awarded $1.75 million each for future pain and suffering, embarrassment and humiliation, enjoyment of life and disfigurement. It awarded Mee $1 million in punitive damages. The jurors awarded Mee $400,310 for future lost earnings and $48,000 for past lost earnings. They awarded her more than $66,000 in medical expenses, according to the verdict sheet.

The accident occurred Sept. 12, 2008 in Delaware County, Pa. Mee was driving her Honda Civic southbound on Bishop Avenue on her way to work. Fabrizio had stolen Fitzpatrick’s Ford Taurus from his house in Drexel Hill and was also driving it southbound on Bishop Avenue, according to a pretrial memorandum in the case.

Evans was driving a 2006 Chevrolet Express van in the northbound lane while working for Johnson Controls. Mee had stopped to make a left turn when she was struck from behind by Fabrizio, who fled the scene with a passenger in the Taurus, according to court documents.

Mee was pushed across the median into the northbound lane when she was struck broadside on the passenger side of her vehicle by the van driven by Evans. Mee was extracted from the vehicle and taken to Crozer-Chester Medical Center’s trauma unit. She was later transferred to a rehabilitation center where she remained until Oct. 8, 2008, according to court papers.

An “event data recorder” recovered from the Johnson Controls van showed Evans was driving 48 miles per hour in a 35-mile-per-hour speed zone at the time of the accident. Evans also testified he was on his cell phone at the time of the accident, according to court documents.

Mee, now 38, suffered a broken clavicle, sternum and femur along with three broken vertebrae. She has a rod in her femur and her legs are now different lengths, causing her to limp and need a cane. Mee also suffered brain injuries and has not been able to return to work or independently care for her autistic son or her war veteran father who is blind from a landmine accident, Sacchetta said. She has two children. Aside from physical issues, Mee also has memory and cognition problems, according to her pretrial memorandum.

The demand going into trial was $10 million, according to the memorandum. Johnson Controls said in its pretrial memorandum that the demand against it was $5 million and no offer had been made at that time.The company said in the memorandum that Mee’s car was pushed in front of Evans who “unavoidably struck” it.

“There was nothing Evans could have done about it,” Johnson Controls said in its memorandum filed by attorney Aaron Byrd-Leitner of Margolis Edelstein.

“Any jury — in Philadelphia or otherwise — will understand the dynamics of this accident and will know who is obviously at fault,” Johnson Controls said in the memorandum. “Any games that plaintiff’s attorney intends to play with trying to attach ‘1 percent’ of liability on the part of defendants JCI and Evans is farfetched, obfuscates the truth and borders on an abuse of process when considering that the clear and obvious documented cause of this accident was the negligent and criminal conduct of defendants Fabrizio and [passenger Steven] McCall.”

McCall was dismissed from the case before trial. Fabrizio was not at the trial and did not file any responses, Sacchetta said.

Sacchetta said joint and several liability was key to getting a strong resolution for his client in this case.

“We had no doubt that we thought we could get 1 percent,” he said. “That’s why the joint and several, I think, is so critical here.”

Two of the three defendants were trying to avoid any responsibility, Sacchetta said, and his client just wanted them to pay their fair share.

“That was a line they were trying to tote that there was no way their client had any responsibility, but I think the joint and several in this particular case was appropriate and that’s why the case ended up in a good resolution for everybody,” Sacchetta said.

Sacchetta tried the case along with Bruce H. MacKnight Jr., an attorney with Sacchetta’s firm. Sacchetta said Johnson Controls was at trial until the two sides reached a settlement, but said the jury didn’t know a settlement was reached.

The case started out with 12 jurors, but after one didn’t return, the parties agreed to proceed with 11, he said.

In talking with the jurors after the trial, Sacchetta said it was clear they were concerned with the single mother’s ability to care for her son and father. They deliberated for five hours over the course of two days, he said.

Michael Martin Cohen of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., testified for Mee as a neurological expert. David L. Hopkins of King of Prussia, Pa., offered expert testimony on economics and Lorraine E. Buchanan of Independent Allied Health Consultants in Blue Bell, Pa., testified to Mee’s life care plan. Neuropsychologist David J. Massari of Clinical Neuropsychology Association in Philadelphia and physical medicine doctor William C. Murphy of Smart Rehabilitation in Media, also testified on Mee’s behalf.

Johnson Controls’ attorney Byrd-Leitner declined to comment.

Reprinted with permission from the “ISSUE DATE” edition of the “PUBLICATION.” © “2011” ALM Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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