It became clear to me within the first two days of trial that this would
be no ordinary battle of fact and law, but instead would be an odyssey into the
emotions, disappointments and destruction of what were once solid familial
relationships. The backdrop to this case is not so much the horrendous auto
accident as much as it is the story of two children who covet precious little
original memories of their once intact nuclear family, memories that have melded
with the memories that other people possess of Lauren’s and Paul
Jr.’s parents and siblings. Justice can be achieved and their memories
preserved without sorting out from whence these memories came; the attorneys in
this trial have provided ample objective evidence regarding what Lauren’s
and Paul Jr.’s lives were like before the accident and what their lives
have been like since the accident.
Martin Phelps testified that, on October 5, 1995, he was traveling
westbound on the NYS Thruway when he heard a Citizen’s Band radio
(“CB”) report of the serious motor vehicle accident a few miles
ahead of him. When Mr. Phelps heard the CB report, he could not yet see the
accident scene. Within three minutes of hearing the CB report, Mr. Phelps
stopped his car at the scene, approximately thirty feet east of the accident on
the north shoulder. At this point, he had a clear view of the accident. Mr.
Phelps turned his CB radio to Channel 9 (an emergency channel) and identified
himself as a firefighter/rescue person at the scene of an accident and asked
anyone listening to call 911. He stated that this call took approximately
thirty seconds. He then proceeded to the car, which took approximately fifteen
seconds. This is when he first heard screaming, specifically, a child’s
screams, coming from the vehicle.
As Mr. Phelps approached the passenger
side of the Lincoln, he conducted a primary survey to determine the seriousness
of the accident. At that time, Mr. Phelps observed four occupants in the
vehicle; Paul Sr. in the driver’s seat, Deborah in the front passenger
seat and Nicholas and Chesa in the backseat. Mr. Phelps testified in sum and
substance that all four individuals appeared to be deceased. Mr. Phelps
testified that he could hear a child somewhere in the backseat, but that the
impact of the collision had folded the seat around the child, preventing Mr.
Phelps from being able to see him or her.
Mr. Phelps spent the next 15
minutes attempting to locate the screaming child. He finally was able to see
the top of the child’s head, but that was as far as he could go with the
crowbar he was using to gain access to the vehicle. Finally, with the
assistance of a State trooper, a tow chain and a dump truck, the vehicle was
pulled out from under the truck with which it had collided and Mr. Phelps was
able to physically get to the screaming child. The child was Lauren. Lauren
was stuck in the backseat between Chesa and Nicholas. Mr. Phelps testified that
he dared not move her, fearing that he would cause further injuries. It was
only then that, out of the corner of his eye, Mr. Phelps happened to detect
movement in the front seat. He soon realized that another child was in the
vehicle, between Paul Sr. and Deborah, with Paul Sr. leaning on top of him. Mr.
Phelps proceeded to move Paul Sr. over to the left side of the car to pull his
weight off Paul Jr. who, at that time, appeared to be having trouble breathing.
Once Paul Sr. was moved, Paul Jr. was able to breathe more easily in a normal
sitting position while leaning into his mother. Mr. Phelps’ testimony
regarding the state of the vehicle was consistent with the damage as depicted in
Exhibits 99 and 100.
At this point, Mr. Phelps testified that he could
hear ambulance sirens approaching. The emergency medical technicians first
extricated Lauren and quickly carried her to the ambulance. Twenty minutes had
gone by from when he first heard Lauren scream and her removal from the car.
Lauren had broken glass in her mouth and was bleeding from this area. Mr.
Phelps did not notice any other cuts or blood on Lauren. She continued to cry
on the way to the ambulance. Mr. Phelps and others had to remove Deborah from
the car in order to gain access to Paul Jr. Mr. Phelps testified that Paul Jr.
was in the car approximately a minute longer than Lauren. The children were put
in separate ambulances and left the scene immediately.
Paul Jr. does not
have much memory of the accident, though he testified he remembers being in
Buffalo Children’s Hospital and that his grandmother Antoinette Labe was
there. Paul Jr. also does not recall who informed him about the accident. When
he asked where they were coming from at the time of the accident, he was told
that they were coming from the eye doctor. Paul Jr. remembers having two broken
legs, though he does not remember the pain from the injuries. Paul Jr.
testified that these injuries left him in a wheelchair for a while.
testified at the trial about the accident. She stated that, on the way home,
her father was driving, her mother was in the passenger seat, and Paul Jr. was
between them. She was sitting in the backseat with Nicholas and Chesa. Lauren
testified that she remembers the family stopping on the way home so that her
father could look at an antique car, which he liked to collect, restore, and
then sell. After this stop, the family proceeded to head home to the Buffalo
area, soon after which, Lauren fell asleep. Lauren states she woke up after the
crash, but was still unaware of what had just happened. Lauren testified that
her eyes were closed and stayed closed until she arrived at the hospital.
Lauren remembers hearing rain hit the pavement, people’s voices and the
sound of cars. Lauren testified that she remembers crying and experiencing pain
once she was pulled out of the family’s vehicle. Lauren, however, does
not recall ever meeting, seeing or hearing Martin Phelps prior to this trial.
Claimants requested the application of a lower
burden of proof as to the issue of whether or not Paul Sr. and Deborah were
conscious and aware of the impending impact, relying on the Noseworthy
doctrine (Noseworthy v City of New York
, 298 NY 76). Specifically,
Claimants requested that their witness, a licensed forensic pathologist, be
permitted to testify as to “a reasonable degree of certainty in the field
of forensic pathology whether [the bruises on the tops of Paul Sr.’s and
Deborah’s hands and arms were] consistent with a defensive movement”
(Tr. 2476), inferring that Paul Sr. and Deborah were aware of the impending
impact and attempting to protect themselves. Defendant objected to the
application of Noseworthy
and I reserved decision. I now find that
does not apply in this case.
In a death case a plaintiff
is not held to as high a degree of proof of the cause of action as where an
injured plaintiff can himself describe the occurrence (Noseworthy v City of
, 298 NY at 80). This doctrine has been applied even where the
claimant can call an eyewitness to the injury-causing accident to testify
(Schechter v Klanfer
, 28 NY2d 228, 231). However, the doctrine will not
apply where the parties are “similarly situated insofar as accessibility
to the facts of the accident” (Rotoli v State of New York
, Ct Cl,
February 21, 2003 [Claim No. 81960], Corbett, J., UID #2002-005-022). Here,
there are two potential eyewitnesses to the accident, Lauren and Paul Jr. Both
children testified at trial that they had no recollection of the events
immediately preceding the impact. Defendant possesses no witnesses or evidence
regarding what happened in that car before impact that Claimants did not also
have access to for this case. Therefore, I sustain Defendant’s objection
as to this witness’s expert opinion regarding the possible existence of
defensive wounds on both Paul Sr. and Deborah.
Even if I allowed the
diminished burden of proof on this issue, it would not have benefitted Claimants
inasmuch as the objective evidence contained in Exhibits 93, 94, 95 and 96, in
combination with Exhibits 99 and 100, lead me to conclude that the impact was so
ferocious that the so-called “defensive injuries” were actually
consistent with the overwhelming injuries sustained by Paul Sr. and Deborah and
were caused by the impact and nothing else.
I also find the proof
insufficient to prove that Nicholas and Chesa were cognizant of the impending
crash. Further, Claimants have not met their burden of proof that any of the
deceased family members were conscious following the impact. I base this
finding on the tentative nature of the pathologist’s testimony on this
issue when weighed against the enormity of the injuries sustained (Exhibits 93,
94, 95, and 96) (Cummins v County of Onondaga
, 84 NY2d 322,
325). Personal Injuries
Lauren is entitled to recover for her own
personal pain and suffering from the physical injuries she sustained in the
accident and for any emotional injuries as a result of the accident.
Claimants’ expert medical doctor testified regarding the nature of
Lauren’s physical injuries. He is currently a Clinical Assistant
Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo’s Department of
Rehabilitative Medicine as well as Associate Medical Director for Pediatric
Inpatient Rehabilitation at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, New York. It
is uncontroverted that Lauren fractured both clavicles. While painful, the
fractures were easily treated by having Lauren wear a “figure eight
harness” to keep her shoulders back and restrict her range of motion.
Healing took place over approximately two months and she would then, over the
third month, start to increase the use of her arms. Lauren recalled at trial
that her shoulders hurt when she moved to her uncle Gino LaMendola’s house
and could not recall specifically when the pain stopped.
Lauren was admitted
to the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo on October 5, 1995 and discharged on
October 8, 1995 with instructions to take over the counter Tylenol, as needed
(Exhibit 69B). I note that it is the doctor’s opinion that Lauren’s
physical injuries have healed and she requires no future medical services. I
award $100,000.00 for her physical injuries.
Claimants believe Lauren should
be compensated for alleged emotional injuries she sustained from being in the
accident. The doctrine Claimants rely upon to support their position is the
“zone of danger.” However, before I even get to the issue of zone
of danger and all that it implies, I must explore whether or not Lauren was even
aware of what happened.
Lauren’s testimony at trial was that she was
asleep before the accident occurred, was unaware of what happened when she woke
up after the crash, and kept her eyes closed from the time she woke up until she
arrived at the hospital. Claimants’ counsel attempted, at great length,
but in vain, to tease even a small recollection of the events from Lauren.
Lauren consistently and stridently hung on to her position. On this particular
point, however, I find Lauren’s testimony sadly incredible.
Phelps arrived on the scene and exited his vehicle, he heard screams. This was
presumably minutes after impact. He testified that he talked to Lauren
attempting to calm her, and that, once the backseat was removed and he was able
to see her clearly, he observed that her eyes were wide open. Lauren herself,
during her course of treatment with the psychologist and, to a lesser extent,
with the developmental psychologist, recounted details of the accident’s
aftermath; that her brother Nicholas was on top of her when she woke up, she had
glass on her face, she did open her eyes and she did scream, and she knew that
what had happened was bad. I believe that Claimants have established that
Lauren was conscious and aware of her surroundings immediately after impact.
Therefore, Lauren is entitled to an award for post-impact conscious pain and
, 84 NY2d at 324-325)
to fairly compensate her for emotional injuries.
There is no question that
Defendant’s negligence exposed Lauren to an unreasonable risk of bodily
injury or death and that same negligent act was the proximate cause of the
demise of Lauren’s family members. She clearly was within the zone of
danger as contemplated by the case of Bovsun v Sanperi
(61 NY2d 219,
230-231). The only remaining proof required for her to recover damages for
emotional injuries is proof that she either observed or had
“contemporaneous awareness” of the death of an immediate family
member (Cushing v Seemann
, 247 AD2d 891, 892). Here, Lauren recollected
feeling the weight of her brother on top of her and feeling that something bad
had happened. An eyewitness testified that Lauren’s eyes were open and
that she had made eye contact with him. Although Lauren may not have been aware
of the fate of her remaining family members at that moment, she at least was
aware that her brother Nicholas had been badly injured. That is sufficient to
satisfy that element of the standard.
A divided Court of Appeals
acknowledged in Bovsun
) that proof of damages, that is an
emotional disturbance, can be speculative and difficult to prove and that
“we must look to the quality and genuineness of proof, and rely to an
extent on the contemporary sophistication of the medical profession and the
ability of the court . . . to weed out the dishonest claims” (Bovsun v
, 61 NY2d at 231). There is nothing dishonest here about
Claimants’ position that Lauren has suffered emotionally since the
accident. However, the question now becomes whether the emotional disturbance
is “serious and verifiable” and not merely a “trifling
at 240 and 231). I adopt Claimants’
expert’s position that Lauren currently suffers from an adjustment
disorder with disturbance of mood and conduct, a serious and verifiable
disorder. Her distress is more than trifling and her suffering is real.
However, the accident is just one cause of her present condition and the award
must be reduced by one third in recognition that it is also the loss of her
mother and her living environment that have contributed to her emotional state.
I award $1,000,000.00 for the emotional harm sustained by virtue of her being in
the zone of danger. This figure, reduced by one-third, is $666,700.00. The
total award to Lauren for her pain and suffering, both physical and emotional,
Unlike Lauren, I have no evidence before me that shows Paul
Jr. was conscious and aware of his surroundings immediately after impact;
therefore, Paul Jr. is not entitled to an award for post-impact conscious pain
and suffering, even though Paul Jr., too, was clearly within the zone of
Paul Jr. suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage coma; a fractured left tibia
and fibula; a fractured right femur; a displaced and fractured left femur; and a
small laceration and bruise on his liver. Paul Jr. was admitted to
Children’s Hospital of Buffalo on October 5, 1995 and discharged on
October 28, 1995. It is uncontroverted that the doctors stabilized Paul Jr. in
the trauma unit, then intubated him and placed him on a ventilator. The doctors
administered pain medications and transferred him to the Intensive Care Unit.
Doctors kept Paul Jr. heavily sedated from the time of his admission until
approximately October 12, 1995 to keep him cooperative with the IV lines and
ventilator. Paul Jr. received paralytic agents, narcotic pain medications and
Regarding the subarachnoid hemorrhage coma or
traumatic head injury, Claimants’ doctor testified that the trauma caused
the brain to bleed and that the blood was eventually transported in and around
the brain layers by spinal fluid until it reached the outside of the brain where
the blood was reabsorbed. The doctor’s analysis of Paul Jr.’s
Computerized Axial Tomography (“CAT”) scans of the area demonstrated
Paul Jr. also sustained fractures in both legs. The doctors
operated on Paul Jr. on October 8, 1995 to place pins in his left leg to help
correct the left femur fracture. His left leg was then casted and his right leg
was placed in traction. I note surgery was done three days after the accident
because of damage to Paul Jr.’s liver. It appears from the
hospital’s discharge notes that almost two weeks after the operation, Paul
Jr. was seen in the hospital’s orthopedic clinic where he received two new
orthopedic devices, one for each leg. He also received physical therapy and was
able to use a walker by the time he was discharged on October 28, 1995 (Exhibit
69A). Paul Jr. was discharged with a cast on his left leg, a
“HKAFO” (Hip, Knee, Ankle, Foot Orthosis) on his right leg which
attached at his hip and went all the way down to his foot, prescriptions for a
wheelchair, a walker and Tylenol with codeine. Paul Jr. also received follow-up
care shortly after discharge in the orthopedic clinic. I award $850,000.00 for
Paul Jr.’s past physical injuries. There was no evidence at trial of
future damages for pain and suffering or for the medical needs of Paul Jr.
Therefore, I make no award in this regard. WRONGFUL DEATH
“Pecuniary injuries” are injuries
measurable by money and do not include “loss of society, affection,
conjugal fellowship and consortium (Liff v Schildkrout, 49 NY2d 622, at
633-634)” (Gonzalez v New York City Hous. Auth., 77 NY2d 663, 668).
Nor may they include consideration of “sympathy, passion, prejudice or
corruption” (Juiditta v Bethlehem Steel Corp., 75 AD2d 126,
Pecuniary injuries are calculated upon the following factors: present
and future earnings; the age, character and condition of the decedent; increased
expenditures needed to continue the services decedent provided; circumstances of
the distributees (Gonzalez, supra); and the “premature loss of the
educational training, instruction and guidance [that the children] would have
received from their now-deceased parent” (Mono v Peter Pan Bus Lines,
Inc., 13 F Supp 2d 471, 477, citing Gonzalez v New York City Hous.
Auth., 161 AD2d 358).
Paul Sr. and Deborah
Paul LaMendola Sr.
died at age 39. His brothers, Lee and Gino LaMendola, gave testimony that was,
at times, very emotional and tense, colored by the trauma of losing their
younger brother and by the stress of becoming guardians for their
brother’s surviving children. I determined that Paul Sr.’s older
brothers answered the attorneys’ questions as honestly as they could. I
took from their testimony that Paul Sr. never graduated from high school
although he later achieved a G.E.D. They also confirmed that their brother
worked in the family painting business, on and off, from the time he was a
teenager. They recalled that their brother and his family participated in
extended family gatherings and that Paul Sr.’s father and siblings, at
times, loaned Paul Sr. money.
I have no reason to doubt that their memories,
along with those shared with me by Rose Abramo, a close family friend, are
accurate in describing Paul Sr. as a good friend, a loving father and husband,
and a generous man who had a talent for fixing cars and houses. Their
testimony, taken together, also confirmed for me what the evidence suggests -
that this good, loving, and generous man struggled with financial difficulties,
marital discord, and the stresses of raising and providing for an older daughter
from a previous marriage and four children, two of whom possessed special needs.
Deborah LaMendola was described with equally glowing terms. Mrs. Abramo
first met Deborah in 1984. She described Deborah as immediately likeable,
friendly and outgoing. Also, that she was thin and pretty with long hair; very
attractive. Mrs. Abramo testified that Paul Sr. treated Deborah kindly,
lovingly and with a lot of respect. Paul Sr. and Deborah were always very
affectionate towards each other, Mrs. Abramo observed.
Deborah LaMendola was
36 years old when she died.
Nicholas and Chesa
described Nicholas and Chesa as having similar personalities - mild-mannered,
happy-go-lucky, easy to handle and easily satisfied. She recalled that Nicholas
would ride his bike to the Abramos’ to visit. Mrs. Abramo remembers
Nicholas taking Tae Kwon Do and proudly showing off the belts he had earned.
Chesa was very close with the Abramos’ daughter, Jessica. According to
Mrs. Abramo, Chesa was the “motherly type.” She described Chesa as
a sweet little girl who was a joy to be around. Nicholas was 10 years old on
the date of the accident. Chesa was 8 years old. There was no evidence of
pecuniary injuries resulting from the wrongful death of Nicholas or Chesa.
Therefore, no award is made in this regard.
Here, the proffered expert reviewed portions of the record related to Lauren
and Paul Jr.’s school performance; was asked to assume diagnoses of ADD,
ADHD and Reactive Reattachment Disorder applied; and had access to one of the
experts who testified at trial who had personally reviewed the record and
interviewed Claimants. Based on the rule discussed above, Defendant’s
motion to strike is granted. The expert was not required to read every record
or personally interview the children; the expert could appropriately rely upon
another expert who was subject to cross-examination at trial. My problem with
the proffered opinion was that it was based on facts not in evidence, that is,
the medical diagnosis of Reactive Reattachment Disorder was never made and the
medical diagnosis of ADHD was never confirmed.
Lauren entered kindergarten
at the Smallwood School in the Amherst School District in September 1992.
School records from Smallwood cover September 1992 through November 1995, when
Lauren moved to a school district near her Uncle Gino’s home. They depict
a pretty little girl capable of good academic performance when she wanted to
“settle in” and focus. The comments also show another side of
Lauren - she was easily frustrated, demanding of attention, stubborn and moody.
By the third grade, she was receiving remedial reading help. She also seemed to
work best in small work groups (Exhibit 86). Lauren did not appear to have any
physical challenges or disabilities before the accident.
first introduction to therapy after the accident was through the Child &
Adolescent Treatment Services (“CATS”). She was seen regularly by a
social worker, from October 31, 1995 through May 1996.
It appeared from the progress notes that Lauren used her sessions to vent;
however, the notes also indicate that she was making progress and was beginning
to settle into her new school and living situation (Exhibit 80C). I note that
it was not long into her sessions with CATS that two major events occurred - she
was abruptly moved from Gino and Gail LaMendola’s care, and a major
custody lawsuit between the LaMendola family and the maternal grandmother was
commenced over the guardianship of her and her brother, Paul Jr.
next treated by a developmental psychologist from August 1996 through the spring
of 1998. Treatment concerned not only the children, but the other family
members as well. The doctor’s background includes the study of all
aspects of child development, from infancy through late adolescence. This field
includes a consideration of how cognitive ability, communication skills,
language skills, personality, social skills and emotional development manifest
themselves in the child’s relationships. This witness affirms what every
expert or treating physician at trial opined about child development. Between
the ages of four and eight, children learn family and societal rules and values
by modeling their parents or parental figures. This doctor treated Lauren, Paul
Jr., and their second set of legal guardians, Lee and Sandy LaMendola.
was during this time period that Lauren appeared to be the one having the most
difficult time adjusting to life after the accident; she was openly hostile and
unwilling to cooperate at home. Lauren, who was 8 at the time these sessions
began, lacked insight about her behavior and how it affected the people around
her. Although she might be rational and logical at times, her inability to
behave consistently in that manner was not age appropriate. In this
witness’s opinion, Lauren had not successfully completed the modeling
stage in child development. She was not feeling remorse for things she had done
wrong; rather, she would feel angry about an adult having set a limit on her
behavior. The witness observed that Lauren had a negative self-image and, in
this regard, he kept trying to show Lauren that her drawings showed true talent
and were something she could point to as a positive attribute.
living situation, it was very clear to the witness that Lauren did not feel
loved or wanted. Also, she was still grieving the loss of her biological family
and possessed limited social and emotional coping skills.
course of the two years that he treated her, he felt that Lauren had not
improved, that she was still hostile and had a negative effect on people whom
she was unable to appreciate. He concluded that her social and emotional
development was not just delayed, but actually
When he treated her, he observed a discrepancy
between her IQ, which was in the above average range, and her academic
performance, which was poor; Lauren tested at the second-grade level while in
the third grade. He opined that it takes an incredible amount of nurture and
guidance to help a child develop the skills and attitude necessary to close such
an educational gap, as well as a tremendous amount of advocacy, with teachers
and the school system, and maybe even health care professionals where necessary.
The witness believed Lauren was not getting the nurturing, guidance and advocacy
she needed. Biological parents would have a difficult time with such a task but
they would most likely have a bond with their child that would keep them from
giving up. An intact and functioning family could make the difference in such a
situation. However, it is a very difficult thing to expect another adult to
shoulder this burden, especially with a child that is openly hostile.
was next treated by a licensed psychologist in a private practice who worked
primarily with children experiencing emotional and/or behavioral difficulties.
Her practice was therapy-based, meaning that she helped set goals and worked
with her patients to achieve those goals. Her course of treatment ran from
September 1999 to November 2000.
After several sessions in the fall of 1999,
this doctor diagnosed Lauren with adjustment disorder with disturbance of
emotion and conduct, that is, she was feeling stressed about adjusting to her
life after the accident and having difficulties managing her emotions. The
doctor also diagnosed Lauren as clinically depressed; her symptoms were impaired
sleep and appetite, difficulty concentrating, irritability and anger. Lauren
would, at times, verbalize her wish not to live anymore without her biological
Her treatment, psychotherapy (or talk therapy), revolved around
getting Lauren to express her feelings, which to the doctor appeared to be
anger, loneliness, rejection and sadness, and identify what it is she is missing
in her life that causes her to feel that way. The doctor testified that Lauren
misses a loving and nurturing support person. It appeared that Lauren never
really identified this missing element in her life on her own. For this reason,
she could not achieve success in the next level of psychotherapy - discussing
all the people presently available to her and exploring whether or not a
relationship with one or more of them might fill the void. Not only was Lauren
unable to do that, but it appeared that her inability to resolve her feelings
interfered with her day-to-day existence. She was unable to get along with the
rest of her family or make friends. She was also doing poorly in school and was
not performing many age-appropriate self-care activities such as brushing her
teeth and bathing. Unfortunately, even if Lauren had gotten to the point where
she could accept her aunt and uncle in a parental role, they may not have been
capable of filling this void as, by this time, they were “burned
out” and overwhelmed by the situation themselves.
Several months into
the therapy, the doctor concluded that Lauren was not getting past her grief
over losing her family. The conditions that normally allow an individual to do
that were not present in her life following the accident. What would be a
significant stressor for even an adult, a serious motor vehicle accident with
fatalities, was, for Lauren, followed by a change in homes and schools. Such
changes are, in and of themselves, significant stressors for any seven-year-old,
even with the help and support of biological parents. Throughout all of this,
Lauren lacked a connection with a nurturing parent figure that could help her
cope and work through her grief. I note that successive therapists were unable
to significantly help Lauren.
Up to this point in her life, Lauren had three potential mother figures,
all of whom left her in one way or another. The doctor opined that this fact
was a significant reason for Lauren’s anger and feelings of rejection, as
well as her inability to accept any guidance or nurture from anyone, except
perhaps her maternal grandmother.
The doctor’s treatment plan was to
try and help Lauren cope with her situation. She had hoped to get Lauren beyond
just expressing her feelings and into understanding the impact her feelings had
on her life. The final step would then have been attempting to control this
impact. The doctor felt that Lauren’s feelings of anger and rejection
kept her from trusting other people, opening up and being herself. This, in
turn, prevented her from developing close relationships with other people. This
witness states she really did not reach Lauren because there was no change in
Lauren’s behavior in school or at home. Lauren’s course of
treatment effectively ended in October 2000. The doctor opined that the cause
of Lauren’s problems was the motor vehicle accident and the loss of her
parents and, while I conclude that those two occurrences are part of the cause,
I find that the lack of a nurturing parental figure on the scene after the
accident and Lauren’s unfulfilled desire to live with her maternal
grandmother were of greater impact on her and a larger cause of the problems she
I find that the accident had an unquestionable impact on
Lauren. The exhibits related to her therapy sessions, starting with the second
CATS intervention immediately after the accident through the last therapist
discussed above, all reference, on at least one occasion, a description of the
accident. Lauren talked about the accident more often early on in the process
Exhibit 80C). The next event with an even greater degree of impact
upon Lauren is the loss of her family, in particular, her mother. Finally, the
most stressful events occurring post-accident were the changes in Lauren’s
home environment. The Claimant’s expert’s evaluation of Lauren in
1998 led him to conclude that Lauren possessed a stubborn and defiant demeanor.
He diagnosed her with an adjustment disorder with disturbance of mood and
conduct, a specific diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders (4th ed 1994), requiring the existence of a life stressor causing the
disturbance of conduct and mood. The symptoms can be present for six months or
until the stressor is removed. Here, the initial stressor was the fatal motor
vehicle accident. This was followed by the loss of her parents, then drastic
changes in her living arrangements. Neither of these last two stressors have
Testimony and records indicate that, before the accident, Lauren did
not have any diagnosable disorder, nor did she require therapy or counseling.
My own review of the evidence suggests that Lauren needed a lot of attention,
applied inconsistent effort to her school work, was stubborn and frustrated
easily (Exhibit 86). I agree with Claimants’ expert on this point. The
fact that Lauren was stubborn and willful was not surprising given the
biological family dynamics; four children, two of whom are handicapped, created
stress. Parents would have less quality time to spend with each child because
their time together would have predominately been limit-setting and discipline.
It was natural for Lauren to seek attention, but she appeared to function well
within her biological family unit.
Immediately after the accident, Lauren
struggled to adjust to her change in circumstances. Her school performance from
October 1995 through approximately June 1998 was below average. Her behavior
was willful and stubborn and she required individualized attention from her
teachers. By the third grade, she was referred for testing to determine whether
or not she had a learning disability. In June 1996, the Committee on Special
Education (“CSE”) determined that she did and special services were
recommended (Exhibit 88). During this time frame, Lauren was being counseled
at CATS. Some of the CATS notes mirror the concerns voiced by the school and
some dealt with Lauren’s struggle to come to terms with the motor vehicle
accident: a vivid depiction of the accident scene, a flat recitation of the
facts of the accident, and anger. The relationship with CATS appeared to end in
the spring of 1996 (Exhibit 80C).
Lauren was at the St. Andrew’s
Country Day School for fourth grade in 1996. Her grades were poor and
teachers’ comments were consistent with the prior years. Lauren repeated
the fourth grade and a general improvement in her academic performance for that
year was noted (Exhibit 88). She moved to the Buffalo City School District for
fifth and sixth grades and her academic performance was good. I found no
comments reflecting the types of behavior noted earlier in her school career. I
also note that the special services that had been identified as necessary in the
third grade were not being provided. The school psychologist’s evaluation
of Lauren in October 1999 noted that Lauren was doing well academically and
requested that she no longer receive special assistance.
I must address
Defendant’s position that Lauren is unaffected by the motor vehicle
accident and the loss of her parents because of Lauren’s own assertions
that she is fine, not depressed or defiant, and that her only problem is having
to live with her uncle. I read a letter that leads me to believe differently;
in it, Lauren writes that she would like to invite her parents and deceased
brother and sister to Christmas dinner, ask her mom what it is like in heaven
and if her mom is happy. Lauren wrote this letter as part of a third grade
writing assignment. I do believe that Lauren was beginning to cope with her
grief, as evidenced by the CATS progress notes in Exhibit 80C, but losing her
parents at the age of 7 and having no replacement parental figure kept her from
progressing further and actually coming to terms with the loss and developing a
strategic plan for how she will cope in the future.
I find that Lauren will
need assistance coping with the loss of nurturing and guidance as it is clear
from the record before me that no one has stepped in to fill the role of a
nurturing parental figure for her. I adopt the Claimants’ expert’s
opinion that psychotherapy sessions every other week for $115 per session
through Lauren’s 30th birthday are fair and reasonable. Paul
Dr. Scott Olitsky, a board certified ophthalmologist,
testified on behalf of the Claimants. Currently, he is a physician at Buffalo
Children’s Hospital in pediatric ophthalmology as well as an Associate
Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the State University of New York
in Buffalo. Dr. Olitsky has treated Paul LaMendola Jr. since April
Dr. Olitsky testified that Paul Jr. suffers from the congenital
disease, albinism, specifically tyrosinase negative oculocutaneous albinism,
meaning his body makes very little, if any, of the pigment that colors his skin,
hair or eyes. He stated most people with any level of albinism have vision
problems; the more severe the disease, the more severe the vision deficits.
Paul Jr. is a more severe case in both aspects. Paul Jr. also possesses a
nystagmus; meaning he suffers from an involuntary pendular movement of his eyes.
Nystagmus is typical in all children born with poor vision, but Paul Jr.’s
is quite pronounced, given the severity of his albinism. Children with
nystagmus will have their vision change from day to day, depending on the
frequency of the eye movement. In addition, mood swings caused by excitement,
stress, nervousness or sleep deprivation also affect nystagmus, causing the
pendulum effect of the eyes to become more rapid, further decreasing a
patient’s vision. Paul Jr. also suffers from photophobia, or light
sensitivity, and strabismus, a misalignment of the eyes or a “cross-eyed
look.” Depending on which eye he is using to focus with, the other eye
will always “cross.”
Between Paul Jr.’s first visit with
Dr. Olitsky in April 1996 and his second in November 1997, his vision had
dropped from 20/240 to 20/400, a change typical in patients with nystagmus. In
June 1999, with both eyes open, his vision was 20/200. It was the
doctor’s opinion that Paul Jr.’s ocular problems are permanent, and
although his best corrected vision would not deteriorate further, Paul Jr. is
considered legally blind in the State of New York. Dr. Olitsky also testified
that Paul Jr. will eventually require a low vision aid due to the natural
decline in his eyes’ ability to focus, a malady that occurs naturally as
we get older. Regarding the strabismus, there is a surgery available that would
help to align Paul Jr.’s eyes, though it would not correct his vision. In
fact, according to Dr. Olitsky, there currently is no surgery available to
correct Paul Jr.’s poor vision.
The various reports from the Blind
Association of Western New York’s Visually Impaired Preschool
(“VIP School”) (Exhibit 74) are the most objective and helpful
evidence of Paul Jr.’s personal circumstances before the accident. I have
relied extensively on their contents and used them in conjunction with the
observations of Hope Bongiorno, coordinator of preschool
regarding Paul Jr.’s behavior and progress from 1991 through 1994.
Observations fall into six separate skill areas: cognitive, language,
socialization, self-help, gross motor and fine motor.
experience in the VIP School from January through June 1991 showed some degree
of progress in all areas, except for “significant” delays in
language skills. His teacher observed that he was most interested in activities
where he had free rein to explore and handle materials as he wished and was
resistant to most activities led by, or accomplished one-on-one with adults.
During this six-month period, Paul Jr. attended school two mornings per week.
In addition, he received vision therapy one time per week.
From July 1991
through June 1992, Paul Jr. was attending school three mornings per week. His
records for this period reflect that Paul Jr.’s greatest strength was in
the fine motor skills area. He showed deficits in the areas of language, visual
skills and self-help skills. His teacher observed that Paul Jr. was having
difficulty following through on adult requests, particularly during group
activities. Group activities also posed a problem in that Paul Jr. would move
away from the group or try to distract children and adults from the activity at
hand. He possessed limit verbal skills, which made communication with the other
children and adults difficult. When he became frustrated he would scream or cry
and an adult would have to intervene.
By the spring of 1993, Paul Jr. was at
the VIP School five days a week for half a day. He also received two 30-minute
sessions of vision therapy, three 30-minute sessions of speech therapy, and two
30-minute sessions of occupational therapy each week. Teachers observed that
Paul Jr. still had trouble staying on task in small group activity; he also made
sounds, talked out loud and touched other children. When in a large group, he
would “perseverate,” that is, engage in a repetitive behavior and
was observed hopping on both feet or spinning in circles. He would need verbal
reminders and physical assistance to get back on task. He also experienced
problems working one-on-one with an adult, again needing frequent reminders to
stay on task. Paul Jr. did experience some improvement in his expressive
speech, but still preferred playing alone and could become easily frustrated,
often resorting to tantrums. Paul Jr. also made “remarkable” gains
during this time frame in the area of language skills with “[s]teady
growth” in the gross and fine motor development and cognitive areas
(Exhibit 74, p. 23).
However, Paul Jr.’s socialization skills were
beginning to suffer in a more readily discernable way, “largely due to his
inability to relate appropriately with his peers” (Exhibit 74, p. 16). It
appears that his vision deficits contributed to this problem. Since he started
school, he has had to hold objects anywhere from 4 to 6 inches from his face, no
problem if you are talking about inanimate objects, quite a problem when meeting
new people, or trying to traverse an open area. Paul Jr. would get physically
close to other children in order to be able to view their features. This
behavior created problems when Paul Jr. was introduced to children in the day
care near the VIP School (a process called mainstreaming or integration) where
getting that close could be construed as being aggressive and the other children
would react negatively to him.
At the end of the 1992-1993 school year, the
Amherst Central School District filed an Individual Education Plan
(“IEP”) for the following year and recommended that Paul Jr. attend
the VIP School every day for half a day in July and August, with related
services in occupational and vision therapy. They recommended that Paul Jr. be
placed in a full-day program, five days a week from September through June,
with related services in occupational and vision therapy. Further, Paul Jr.
would also participate in integration activities at least once a week during the
summer and once a day during the school year.
Paul Jr. had been consistently
referred to as a bright and capable child over this time period but, by February
1994, education professionals began referring to him as a child with poor social
skills. “He is intolerant of others, frustrates extremely easily and has
difficulty attending to topics or activities not of his choosing. Paul displays
a disrespectful attitude toward authority and does not accept responsibility for
his actions. Overall he has a negative attitude toward school” (Exhibit
74, p. 38). This negative attitude dissipated when he was happily engaged in
school activities of his own choosing either alone or with a peer he
Integration was not going well either, as he displayed
inappropriate social behavior. Demonstrating self-control was also a problem.
In addition, and for the first time, the social worker’s report indicates
that Paul Jr.’s behavior at home was aggressive, particularly his
interactions with his brother Nicholas and his sister Lauren. The recommended
vision strategy was to help Paul Jr. learn “not to invade someone’s
space.” He would need constant verbal reminders and physical redirection
and could be offered other things to do, and especially to touch, as a way to
help him deal with his vision deficits.
While skill assessments supported
the opinion that Paul Jr. was indeed a bright and capable child, his
“distractability” impeded his progress in those areas. Barely four
months later, it was recommended that Paul Jr. attend regular kindergarten in
the neighborhood public school in a class with “structure” and
“well defined expectations” with the support of a vision teacher and
an occupational therapist. It was also noted that Paul Jr. would continue with
the VIP Program throughout the summer to avoid “significant
regression” in his development. During that time, Deborah LaMendola was
in touch with the school to help arrange for an appropriate kindergarten
Post-accident, Paul Jr. has been treated by several child
psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as social workers. From August 1996
through the spring of 1998, Paul Jr. treated with the same developmental
psychologist as Lauren. The fact that Paul Jr. lost his parents impeded his
development to an even greater extent than his sister, Lauren, because, being
younger, he missed even more of the opportunity to learn family and societal
rules and values by modeling his parents. This modeling occurs because a child
will try and earn his or her parents’ approval and have a fear of being
rejected by the parent. Paul Jr.’s development was not just hindered by
the loss of his parents. This loss, combined with his vision deficits, was
devastating to his development, as he was unable to see clearly what behavior a
new psychological parent was modeling.
The doctor’s course of
treatment with Paul Jr. primarily focused on his behavior at school. Paul Jr.
was performing well academically, but his behavior was disruptive. Paul Jr.
tested as highly intelligent, yet he was struggling in school. What he really
was missing was an advocate. This witness concluded that Paul Jr.’s
problems with school started even before the accident, when the school district
determined that Paul Jr. could be placed in a regular kindergarten. He
testified that this was because the support services offered were insufficient
to help Paul Jr. make such a transition. Paul Jr. needed a smaller class size
so he could get help with his visual disability during class time.
that during the course of Paul Jr.’s treatment with this doctor, the
doctor did not notice any symptoms of Oppositional Defiant Disorder
(“ODD”) or Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder
(“ADHD”) during their 60-minute sessions.
Paul Jr. was next
treated by a licensed psychologist in private practice. She also worked with
Lauren. The witness treated Paul Jr. from September 1999 through August 2001.
The doctor’s initial diagnosis for Paul Jr. was depression with behavioral
issues. Paul Jr. also showed symptoms of ADHD although the witness did not
diagnose that condition. During this course of treatment, there was evidence
that Paul Jr. first verbalized a desire to die because he had no parents. She
opined that the loss of his parents caused a major disruption in Paul
Jr.’s receiving the nurture and guidance needed to overcome his
disabilities, but even more importantly, he lost the advocacy for the services
I agree with the doctor’s assessment that children with
special needs cause strain in a normal functioning biological family.
Doctors’ appointments do not magically appear on calendars and services,
such as occupational or vision therapy, do not just happen. Obtaining services
for children with disabilities is a lot of work: phone calls, paperwork,
meetings, research and even more time-consuming, a consistency in working with a
child at home. One hour of therapy, or even enrollment in the proper school, is
not enough. What happens outside of the therapist’s office or the school
will have the most impact on the success or failure of intervention. Thus, the
loss of his parents made it less likely that Paul Jr. would develop and progress
the same way he would have had his parents not died in the auto accident.
November 2000, Paul Jr. had more than superficial communications with this
doctor noting he was sad, missed his parents and believed that things in his
life were not right. The doctor noted that Paul Jr. was angry about many
things, but the primary focus was having to live with his aunt and uncle. The
anger manifested itself in aggressive behavior, both at home and at school. In
her opinion, Paul Jr. was unable to control his behavior because he lacked the
ability to figure out why he was angry; instead his focus was on any convenient
source that he could identify as having made him angry.
Toward the end of
this doctor’s professional relationship with Paul Jr., a salient reason
for anger happened to be the prescription medication prescribed by a pediatric
psychiatrist Paul Jr. was also seeing at the same time.
Her course of treatment continued to focus on the depression, attempting to
change his behavior, but she was unsuccessful. By May 2001, the doctor
determined that the structure and support at home and school needed to help Paul
Jr. change his behavior was lacking and she recommended a day school where
therapy was provided on the spot. The weekly sessions terminated in May 2001
and, due to changes in her schedule, she stopped treating Paul Jr. altogether in
At trial, I had the benefit of testimony from Claimants’
expert, a licensed psychologist who, since July 1981, has maintained a private
practice in clinical child psychology and neuropsychology. She deals with
children with ADHD and learning disabilities. In addition, Defendant provided
the testimony of a professor and director of a university school psychology
program who has studied and written about the identification of children’s
cognitive and behavioral deficits and therapeutic
I found both doctors extremely helpful in explaining the significance of the
numerous post-accident Individualized Education Programs (“IEP”)
with the attached reports from the various service providers and the school
records. Based on their testimony and my review of the exhibits, I conclude the
Symptoms of ODD and ADHD appear throughout Paul Jr.’s
school record, even after the initial CATS intervention prior to the accident.
In the Parent Teacher Conference Report for December 1995 at Ledgeview
Elementary School, the teacher noted that Paul Jr. was adjusting well to the new
school but that he tries to rely on the teacher to do things for him instead of
trying himself, possesses poor attending and listening skills, and has crying
outbursts if he does not get his way. This same behavior was noted as occurring
at home as well (Exhibit 76). By March 1996, Paul Jr.’s special education
teacher noted that the biggest concern for the year had been Paul Jr.’s
use of inappropriate language and behavior. Although these had improved
somewhat, as had his crying outbursts, he still often demanded immediate
attention. The school psychologist’s report in the 1995-1996 school year
recommended that Paul Jr.’s special education teacher assist him by
helping to provide structure, organization and reinforcement of learning
Through the second grade at Ledgeview and the third grade at
St. Andrew’s Country Day School, Paul Jr.’s academic progress
appeared to be trending upwards despite his tendency to be easily distracted
from his work. I note that the IEPs for the Buffalo City School District
(Exhibit 78), cover grades four through seven and IEP notes that Paul Jr. needed
“supervision” so his classroom behavior did not interfere with his
learning. One report noted his behavior as “strange, often
immature”; he often cried and ignored adult directives. There were periods
of success, when Paul Jr. seemed to settle into a situation, but the behavior
issues inevitably arose again. Finally, after a frustrating sixth grade year,
Paul Jr.’s guardian and the school principal pressed for a review of Paul
Jr.’s special education classification and placement. When the review
took place, Paul Jr. had, again, seemed to settle into the new school year and
the CSE recommended that he remain in that seventh grade classroom with the
recommended services (Exhibit 78). Unfortunately, Paul Jr.’s behavior
deteriorated and he was eventually referred to a day treatment center.
trauma of the accident itself did not significantly impact Paul Jr.; I note that
in all the testimony and evidence there is no diagnosis of post traumatic stress
disorder. What has had significant impact on him is, however, the loss of his
mother, that is a parent/child relationship that provides emotional stability
and consistent discipline and structure. That Paul Jr. presented a challenge to
his biological parents is an understatement. Before the accident, he possessed
a full-time caregiver, fully engaged in his life and in addressing his needs.
After the accident, he had to rely on well-intentioned family members that did
not possess the tools, skills or ability to provide the type of emotional
stability and consistent discipline and structure that Paul Jr.
Since the accident, Paul Jr. has lived with one uncle who
subsequently divorced; a second uncle who also subsequently divorced; was the
subject of a contentious custody proceeding; and has been placed in four
different schools. I find that these events have placed a significant distance
between the accident and his current status and have had a far more devastating
impact on Paul Jr. by causing the previously somewhat manageable symptoms of ODD
and ADHD to become more severe. So severe, in fact, that the school district
has finally recognized that their heretofore efforts at addressing Paul
Jr.’s needs in the least restrictive environment with a patchwork of
services, despite the plaintive appeals of Paul Jr.’s beleaguered
custodial parent that this was not working, have failed.
However, it would
not be just or fair to lay the cost for addressing these needs now at the feet
of Defendant. It is an illogical leap, given the intervening events outlined
above, to say that the loss of his parents now necessitates that Defendant pay
for residential care, education and treatment for Paul Jr. I find it
speculative that the residential treatment proposed by Claimants would have been
an expenditure that his parents, had they lived, would have had to provide,
given the history of their efforts at intervention and follow-up at home.
Paul Jr. was intelligent enough to progress successfully academically in
the early grades despite the symptoms of ODD and ADHD. As the academics became
more challenging, he was unable to cope, lacking the skills necessary to apply
the required extra effort. I agree with the Claimants’ psychologist that
this is one of the more poignant examples of the devastating impact the loss of
the nurture and guidance of a parent can have on a child. I also find that it
is a perfect example of why the advocacy provided by a parent is so
Inasmuch as Paul Jr. had counseling services to help him and his
parents handle Paul Jr.’s unique challenges due to his vision deficit, and
due to the fact that he continued to need such help after the accident, I find
that psychotherapy sessions every week for $115.00 per session for the remainder
of his life is fair and reasonable. Loss of Parental Guidance:
stated at the beginning of this decision, the wrongful death award to both
Lauren and Paul Jr. must address their claim for loss of parental guidance.
Lauren had very specific memories of her family and strong opinions of her
parents’ impact on her life. She recalled that she and her sister, Chesa,
attended preschool at St. Benedict’s Church for two years. Their mother
transported them. When Lauren reached kindergarten, Deborah taught her the
importance of taking school seriously and that, as she grew older, school would
be more challenging. Lauren testified that her mother was always involved in
their education. Deborah kept in contact with each child’s teacher and
checked on their progress. She was especially involved with Paul Jr.’s
education. Lauren believed her mother had to be because, while the school was
helping her brother, they were also teaching her mother how to help Paul Jr. at
home. Lauren felt it made Deborah a better mother to Paul Jr. and helped her
understand him better.
Lauren told me how her mother used to make clothes
for her and her siblings and showed me pictures of some of the outfits. Lauren
felt her mother encouraged Lauren’s creativity, providing art supplies and
making the time and space for her to use them. Lauren is very artistic and is
proud of this fact because her mother was also a very artistic individual.
Lauren testified that her mother always encouraged her and her siblings to
“stick with” the activities that they enjoyed. Chesa and Lauren
were both involved in softball, though it didn’t interest Lauren enough to
stick with it. Nicholas was involved in Tae Kwon Do classes, which the family
would usually watch together.
Lauren understood her two brothers’
condition of albinism and knew that it meant they needed to be careful. She
testified that her mother always made sure that the boys wore their shirts,
hats, glasses, and a good amount of sunscreen before going outside. Eventually,
Lauren and Chesa could help by making sure as well, so that Nicholas and Paul
Jr. could play outside with the rest of the children in the
Lauren remembers her father as a good-looking man who was
always smiling and laughing. She remembers her mother having a soft voice and
always telling the children how much she loved them and hugging them. She
recalled that her father did that, as well. Lauren testified that both her
parents taught their children right from wrong, manners, and to be on their best
behavior. Deborah taught the children to always keep their rooms clean, and
even taught Lauren how to clean the toilets. Whenever any or all of the
children were ill, Lauren said that her mother would always tend to their needs
and nurse them back to health.
The LaMendola family would take vacations
often, including an annual camping trip to Sherkston Shore in Canada each
summer. Holidays were usually spent at the family’s home on Berryman
Drive, with both her father’s and mother’s families. Birthdays were
always special occasions in the LaMendola household, according to Lauren.
Deborah would always make a beautiful cake and put together party favors.
Lauren said her mother used to read to the children at night and that when the
accident occurred in October 1995, she was in the middle of reading Pollyanna to
them, and never got the chance to finish it. Lauren testified that she and her
siblings even managed to enjoy bathtime, as they had toys and books made
especially for the bathtub.
Paul Jr.’s memories are not as detailed.
He testified that he loved both his parents very much, especially his mother.
Paul Jr. remembers Deborah as a very pretty woman with long hair and a nice
shape. Paul Jr. testified that she was always “real nice.” He also
testified that his immediate family was very close, and that today he and Lauren
remain close, as they are the only members left.
Paul Jr. told the court
that, when Deborah told him how much she loved him, it made him feel
“really good,” and that she would hug him and kiss him all the time.
Deborah would tell Paul Jr. that he was handsome and that he was a “big
boy,” which also made him feel good. Paul Jr. recalls Deborah nursing him
back to health whenever he was sick. He remembers her loving him and
understanding that he could not see very well. She would read things to Paul
Jr. that he could not see very well himself (Paul Jr. described his vision as
out of focus and blurry). Paul Jr. testified that he remembers his mother
explaining his condition of albinism to him. Paul Jr. also testified that he
remembers how Deborah used to read to the children before bed, and how bath time
was always fun with all the toys and books they had for the bathtub. Paul Jr.
does not remember too much about his father, but he did say that he remembers
his father as a tall man who was always fun. He told me that he loved his
Paul Jr. testified that he remembers taking family vacations to
places like Disney World in Florida, and going to see Sesame Street with his
family. Paul Jr. also recalls spending summers camping at Sherkston Shore in
Canada, and spending those days on the beach. He described these vacations as
being a lot of fun. Paul Jr. remembers having a lot of toys to play with when
he still lived with his parents, including a bicycle with training wheels. He
remembers always having to be careful when going outdoors; always having to wear
tinted glasses, a hat and sunscreen.
Paul Jr. testified that his mother
taught him not to lie, to always be honest and tell the truth. He remembers
going to weekly religion classes, and his parents giving him and his siblings
religious videos to watch. If Paul Jr. needed discipline, his parents would
tell him “not to do it” and sometimes he would get a spanking.
Although Paul Jr. claims that these spankings never really hurt, that they were
just enough “to get the picture” so he would know not to repeat the
misbehavior. He recalled that his mother was always home waiting for them after
school, and all the children had a familiar routine after school. He has no
such routine today.
Mrs. Abramo offered several specific examples of the
type of parenting, nurture and guidance that Paul Sr. and Deborah provided.
Deborah was a member of the PTA and very involved with the Blind Association and
United Way fund-raising. She also advocated for her children, and Mrs. Abramo
recalled a time when the two families were on vacation and Nicholas and Paul Jr.
were not able to use the public swimming pool because they were not allowed to
wear hats or t-shirts in the water. Deborah was able to convince the management
to let them wear the necessary protection so the boys could swim with the rest
of the family. Paul Sr. had been a childhood friend of the Abramos. Mrs.
Abramo knew Marie LaMendola Cannizzaro, Paul Sr.’s daughter from a
previous marriage, and had frequently observed Marie together with her father.
She noted that Marie was always clearly happy to be with him. He was involved
with Nicholas’ Boy Scout activities and he frequently enjoyed taking the
children out for ice cream in the evening.
Hope Bongiorno’s testimony
was helpful in detailing for me the extent of Paul Sr. and Deborah
LaMendola’s involvement in Paul Jr.’s education. The VIP’s
mission is to work with children that are visually impaired or blind and help
them compensate for their vision loss and make the children as self-sufficient
and independent as possible. Other students in the VIP had the condition of
albinism, including Paul Jr.’s older brother, Nicholas. The VIP also
works with children who have cognitive delays and gross and fine motor delays.
The VIP does not accept children with severe behavioral needs or those who are
severely physically challenged.
The VIP does not recruit or solicit
students. At the time Paul Jr. enrolled, parents filed a Family Court petition,
stating that they had a child with a disability, and the judge would give
approval for the child to enter the VIP program. The parents’ involvement
with the program did not end once their child started school. The VIP also ran
a program for parents, in which Paul Sr. and Deborah participated. Teachers
worked closely with the family to develop a plan that parents could follow at
home to reinforce what was learned and expected in school. The plan would
address the student’s use of vision at home, as well as behavioral and
cognitive issues. Teachers communicated with parents daily, either in person,
by telephone or in writing. The VIP regularly evaluated students and reviewed
evaluations with parents. The VIP’s vision professionals would work with
parents so that they would know how to present materials and what things to
follow through with at home - appropriate distances for coloring, cutting,
pasting, and appropriate lighting conditions. During Paul Jr.’s tenure,
parent training was done one-on-one, rather than in groups, as it was at the
time of trial.
Ms. Bongiorno testified that Deborah and Paul Sr. were
always involved with the individualized training although it was particularly
Deborah that she saw on a daily basis. Paul Sr. was more likely to attend
meetings and activities at the school. She recalled that Deborah would come
in, talk with the teachers and fill them in on things that were going on at home
with Paul Jr. and explain how he was doing. Deborah and the teachers would also
communicate about Paul Jr.’s medical appointments and successful classroom
strategies that might also be employed at home. Ms. Bongiorno believed that
Deborah did follow through at home, based on the strides Paul Jr. made in his
The End of Year Summary for June 1991 in Exhibit 74 memorialized
Paul Jr.’s progress, remarkable for the fact that he had only been in the
school since January 1991 for two mornings a week plus vision therapy once a
week, they reported his skill levels as either age appropriate or only slightly
below. Ms. Bongiorno concluded that Paul Jr. had to be getting assistance
outside of school because, unlike a seeing child who can mimic adult behavior
and learn in that manner, a visually impaired child learns by having someone
working closely with him to show him how to perform the skills. Deborah had
been instructed to talk with her son all the time and explain what was going on
as a way to make up for his vision deficit. Developing his senses of hearing
and touch was a way to help him compensate.
Ms. Bongiorno testified that she
was aware of Deborah’s involvement with the Blind Association of Western
New York and that she was a member of its board. Deborah brought the
perspective of a VIP program parent to the board. Also, Deborah was involved in
fund-raising activities, advocating for her children and for the VIP program.
Her work in these capacities kept the VIP school on the radar screen, so there
was funding available and it made the school seem a little less remote. Deborah
was also interviewed by the newspaper several times, talking about the program,
the preschool, and providing information on albinism, particularly the need for
early intervention and the benefits of getting children involved in these
programs. She was often a visible advocate for the VIP school and once Deborah
brought the president of the Blind Association to the school to provide a
first-hand experience of how the school operated. She also made sure that the
Association president was invited to the VIP graduations, which helped parents
see that the agency hierarchy was interested in their children.
Bongiorno stated that the entire LaMendola family would attend the
school’s events and activities together. Deborah always talked about all
her children. She would bring Paul Jr.’s siblings to the playground at
the end of their school day. Ms. Bongiorno observed that it was not just Paul
Jr. who was always clean and neat, but that all the children appeared that
Paul Sr. and Deborah LaMendola were involved and caring parents and,
regardless of the love they felt for their children, the stress of raising four
children on one income, with two of the children having special needs, was
evident. All the children had some level of problems at school and, despite
Deborah’s best efforts, there was often not much structure provided in
the home (Exhibit 84).
Deborah sought assistance from CATS in November 1994
and a preliminary Initial Assessment was completed on December 1, 1994. Her
case manager identified two problems; Paul Jr.’s behavior in school and at
home, and lack of support for the parents in managing Paul Jr.’s behavior.
Deborah reported that her son Nicholas had been recently diagnosed with ADHA and
that she believed her husband suffered from ADHA-like symptoms, as he was easily
frustrated. This became particularly apparent as they struggled to combine
their two different parenting styles. One of the treatment goals at that time
was to decrease stress for Deborah. The objectives were to provide support,
“emergency phone numbers,” refer Deborah to a parenting class and to
a counselor to treat her own problems (Exhibit 80A).
During late 1994, the
tension level at home had escalated to the point where Deborah felt it necessary
to call the police and seek an order of protection. She believed that her
husband had been exhibiting controlling behavior over her daily routine and had
choked Paul Jr. Child Protective Services became involved and it was noted
that both parents would be seeking marital counseling at Jewish Family Services,
but that they were also considering divorce (Exhibit 80A). I note that Paul Sr.
took Paul Jr. to one of the counseling sessions after the choking incident and a
few times thereafter. By March of 1995, it appeared that Deborah was in
treatment for her own problems and by June 1995, the treatment notes indicate
that marital counseling was no longer occurring (Exhibit 80A).
time period, it became apparent that the family was experiencing financial
problems as well. Paul Sr. had encumbered the family residence with a second
mortgage to finance a business venture that, in turn, fell through. Paul Sr.
and Deborah sold the family residence, but were able to relocate to a smaller,
less expensive home on the same street to keep their children in the same
school. This happened in either August or September 1995, just weeks before the
It is clear to me that Deborah was the main source of nurture and
guidance for her children. She sought assistance when necessary for the
children, and for herself, as well. She fought to keep her children in the same
school and neighborhood and she fought to keep her marriage healthy. Her role
went beyond nurture and guidance because of the circumstances - raising four
children, two of whom had special needs. She became their primary advocate for
services. I make two awards, one for nurture and guidance for Lauren, Paul Jr.
and Marie (discussed below) and the second for the loss of parental advocacy for
Lauren and Paul Jr. To Lauren, I award a total of $450,000.00 for loss of
nurture and guidance and a total of $200,000.00 for loss of advocacy. For Paul
Jr., I award a total of $1,500,000.00 for loss of nurture and guidance and a
total of $3,000,000.00 for loss of advocacy. Marie LaMendola
As stated earlier, Mrs. Marie LaMendola Cannizzaro is Paul
Sr.’s child from his first marriage. She was born on January 1, 1978.
She is now a parent herself. She has a toddler son and is training to work in
the hair styling field.
After approximately four years of marriage, Paul Sr.
and her mother divorced when Marie was about three years old. Marie testified
that she resided with her mother, but that her parents had joint custody. Paul
Sr. had visitation on Sundays which, according to his daughter, he exercised
faithfully, even after he remarried, until the day he died. Marie’s
mother eventually remarried and had another child when the witness was ten years
old. A year or two later, her father married Deborah.
Several years later,
in 1991, her mother died. Marie recalled that her mother and father’s
relationship was cordial, they always spoke to one another when she was picked
up and dropped off on Sundays.
She also recalls her father visiting her
school; he attended recitals, school events and her graduation. She would call
him for advice if she was having a problem; she felt that after she would talk
to him, “everything got better.” She was often with her extended
family on Sundays at her grandmother’s house and recalls that the
LaMendolas were a close family.
When her mother died, Marie had just
graduated from grammar school. Her father and stepmother, Deborah, asked her to
come live with them and had even painted a room for her to move into, but Marie
agreed to stay with her stepfather to help raise her half brother, who was three
years old when their mother died. She stayed with her stepfather until her
senior year in high school, when her stepfather remarried. She then moved in
with her maternal grandmother so she could remain in the school district and
complete high school.
After her mother died, Marie saw her father two to
three times a week. Her father took her out of the public school and enrolled
her in a private parochial high school. Marie testified that all her friends
from grammar school were attending this school and, because she had been in a
parochial grammar school, she and her father felt it would be good to continue
her Catholic education. She recalled her father assisting her with school
matters; he would transport her to and from school when called for and give her
money for lunch and other items she needed during her senior year (when she
lived with her grandmother), about $10.00 - $15.00 a week. She regularly
attended church on Sundays with her father and Deborah. Her father also did
some remodeling in her grandmother’s house when Marie moved in during her
senior year. Her father gave her money to buy Christmas gifts, but otherwise he
purchased for her whatever she needed, e.g. clothing and shoes. She also
vacationed with her father and the rest of the family.
Marie testified that
she relied on her father for advice about cars and, although he did not help her
financially with the purchase of her first two, he did give her advice and
performed repairs and maintenance. He assisted Marie financially with her
purchase of her third car after she graduated from high school. Paul Sr. also
helped her get her first job, which she held until shortly after the accident.
He always encouraged her to go to college and she had discussed her plans
regarding this with him before he died.
Marie started college at Erie
Community College (“ECC”) in September 1995. Her father gave her
money for her college books. She stated that she withdrew from ECC and quit her
job after the accident because she had lost her ambition to do anything. I find
that Marie is entitled to an award of $200,000.00 for the past loss of the
parental guidance of Paul LaMendola, Sr. I make no award for future loss of
parental guidance, given Marie’s age. Economic Damages:
evidence at trial established that Paul Sr. was a creative and industrious
person who achieved little success in his independent business endeavors. His
brother and Mrs. Abramo and, to a lesser extent, his three children, testified
that Paul Sr. was good at taking old cars and old houses and fixing them up.
However, I find no evidence in the record that he was able to convert that
talent into financial profit.
Claimants and Defendant each offered the
testimony of economists with Ph.D.s, both of whom are teaching professors who
also offer their services in performing appraisals of losses of lifetime
earnings and economic value in wrongful-death cases. According to the expert
testimony, the tax returns from 1991 through 1995 show a total of gross wages
and gross business income of $45,000.00. In addition, over that same period of
time, Paul Sr. received approximately $28,000.00 in unemployment
Average annual income over that period is only $15,368.00. Rather than use this
figure, however, both experts used Paul Sr.’s earnings for 1995,
annualized, as the base figure for their respective lost earnings calculations,
each assuming that Paul would continue working for his brother, Gino LaMendola.
I adopt this assumption, decline to use the actual annual average earnings, and
shall use the 1995 annualized net income as the base earnings
Past lost earnings, from the date of the accident until the time of trial,
occurred over 6.9 years. Both experts accounted for yearly wage increases;
Claimants’ expert used the Consumer Price Index and Defendant’s
expert used the Employment Cost Index. The experts agreed that wages, on
average, over that time period, increased 3.5% per year. I shall credit
Claimants’ expert’s figures and find that 6.9 years of past lost
wages totaled $235,005.00.
Next, the experts deducted what Paul Sr. would
have spent on himself, that is, his personal consumption. Here is where the two
experts disagree. Claimants’ expert used a personal consumption figure
that assumed the accident never occurred and commenced the projection with a
family of six. The personal consumption percentage with a family of six is 17%
and, as each child reaches 21 years of age, the percentage increases until it
reaches 31.1%, when, according to the formula, only Paul Sr. and Deborah would
be left in the household. Defendant’s expert assumed that the household
consisted only of Paul Sr., Lauren and Paul Jr., commencing his projections with
a personal consumption figure of 24.2% and finally reaching approximately 71%,
when only Paul Sr. would be left in the household. I find Claimants’
position persuasive on this issue. Based on the consumption analysis used by
Claimants’ expert, I find that Paul Sr. would have personally consumed
$40,776.00 of his past wages, leaving a net of $ 192,226.00 in past lost
I am charged with determining what is fair and just compensation for
Lauren’s and Paul Jr.’s injuries resulting from not only the
death of their father but their mother and two siblings as well. I have found
no caselaw on this particular issue, but my opinion is that, in order to put
these children back in the position they would have been in had the accident and
the resulting fatalities not occurred, I must credit Claimants’
expert’s testimony. I adopt his analysis and conclusions regarding future
lost wages. I also credit Claimants’ analysis regarding Paul Sr.’s
work life expectancy, that is, to age 67. I find this particularly accurate,
given the fact that he was the father of two special-needs children, he had no
pensions or retirement savings and possessed only a G.E.D., and notwithstanding
his past history of unemployment as evidenced by his tax records testified to at
trial. Thus, Claimants are entitled to $ 1,203,720.00 for future lost wages for
Paul Sr.’s work-life expectancy (to age 67). Applying the personal
consumption figures, the net total future lost wages is $872,281.00.