By Thomas B. Scheffey
In the laws of physics, Lukasz Jura and his 18-pound racing bike were overmatched by Nicholas DeNegris’s 3,600-pound Volvo at a New Britain intersection early on a Saturday in August 2003.
In the ensuing accident, Jura suffered injuries so severe that it looked like he had been bitten by a shark. Still, it appeared he would lose his lawsuit against DeNegris, a prominent attorney, until a “cerebral” jury delivered a $2.7 million plaintiff ’s verdict earlier this month.
The case, Lukasz Jura v. Nicholas DeNegris, offers another example of an insurance company getting burned when it declines to make a significant settlement offer. In this case, DeNegris – a partner in the plaintiff ’s personal injury firm of Januszewski, McQuillen and DeNegris – could have faced a personal financial hit, as his auto insurance policy has a $1.5 million limit. He was spared when, on May 21, the parties agreed to settle for $1,450,000 to put an end to appeals and post-verdict litigation.
Jura, a corrections officer, was biking on New Britain’s Reservoir Road. He cruised to the intersection with Kenwood Drive, a four-way stop. He recalled doing a “track stand” a few feet before the stop sign, coming to a balanced stop without setting a foot on the ground. Seeing no traffic, he began powering through the intersection.
DeNegris, who lived 600 feet away, contends the rider flew into the intersection without warning, striking the Volvo in the driver’s side in a T-bone collision. Jura’s right arm smashed the window, severing his triceps muscle on the broken glass. He also broke four ribs and suffered a brain bleed and spinal injuries.
The first three officers on the scene all knew DeNegris personally or had family and friends familiar with his locally-prominent law firm.
Jura’s lawyer is Carl A. Secola Jr., of New Haven’s Kinney, Secola & Gunning. He said his client never had a chance with the police, who ticketed Jura for running the stop sign.
“I’m not saying they did anything intentionally, but it appeared they went to work making the facts fit their initial conclusion,” Secola said. “From the police drawings, it looked like Jura had no legal case, because it appeared he T-boned the car.”
Cops On Trial
In the trial before New Britain Superior Court Judge Edward S. Domnarski, Secola established Jura as an appealing individual. Jura’s father was active in the Solidarity movement in Poland, and emigrated to the U.S. when his son was 5. When the father eventually left the family, the younger Jura worked to provide support. “He’s not a whiner or complainer,” said Secola.
Secola told the jury that on the day of the accident, police went to the hospital to get a statement from Jura. His doctors said he had a severe head injury and that it would take some time to regain his memory. Still, police questioned him and, his lawyer maintains, from day one Jura said he had stopped first and then entered the intersection before DeNegris reached his stop sign.
“The police position was that he didn’t stop right at the stop sign, so it was his fault. They gave him a ticket,” said Secola.
At trial, Secola attacked the inconsistencies in the police investigation. One key point of reference was a gouge in the pavement. Secola established that it didn’t fit the bike pedal or anything else connected to the accident.
Jura and Secola’s expert, a former officer with the Orange police department, enlarged the small police photographs, which revealed significant details. In particular, there was a black smudge on the white front bumper of the Volvo. Jura contended that his bike was nipped at that point, and that he flew “like a rag doll” in a hingelike arc, so the right side of his body slammed into the driver’s side of the Volvo, causing the damage.
The bike also was largely undamaged, apparently shielded from the impact by the rider’s 200-pound body. “All this physical evidence came back to haunt them,” said Secola. “There was no damage to the car below the line of the molding.”
If Jura had T-boned the Volvo as the police had said, Secola argued, “there would have been a V-like intrusion in the side of the car. There would be damage to the bike wheel. And also, if he had hit in that fashion, [Jura] would have gone right over the hood – which he didn’t do.”
Safeco Insurance, with which DeNegris had a $1.5 million policy, had offered $12,500 before trial. Jura declined. The insurance company was defended by Paul M. Clyons, through its inhouse Law Office of Rodd J. Mantell in Farmington.
Safeco’s accident expert based his report on the police analysis, which was based on several assumptions Secola had worked to discredit.
Even more devastating was DeNegris’s testimony at trial. For the first time, he said he had stopped not once, but twice, because shrubbery at the intersection obstructed the view. The “two-stops” element was so inconsistent with the defense expert’s workup that Clyons had to withdraw his testimony.
Safeco’s adjuster for this case, based in Vermont, assigned a local adjuster to attend the trial every day, said Secola. The attorney said he could tell she was concerned about criticism of the police report and by DeNegris’s surprise testimony.
“I have to believe that she was reporting there was at least a possibility the plaintiff would prevail,” Secola said. Still, “they still didn’t want to offer more than $12,500. Later, when the case was pretty much over, the adjusters suggested $50,000, and my guy wasn’t willing to do that.”
Jura had $4,700 in lost wages and medical bills of $86,000, and there had been some limited testimony about spinal injections he would need for continuing back pain. The jury went out May 2 and, after a while, asked for a calculator.
Secola grew concerned. The medical damages were clearly documented. The only reason he could see for the calculator was that the jury was trying to figure out on its own just who entered the intersection first.
The seed for that assumption was planted by Clyons, the insurance company lawyer. He had cross-examined Jura’s expert about speed, distances and locations. “He was trying to get my expert to commit to certain calculations that would have allowed the jury to make calculations about time and distance,” Secola said.
The six jurors included an engineer, a personnel director, a teacher, and an insurance company analyst. “This was a pretty cerebral jury,” said Secola, who asked the judge not to provide the calculator.
He need not have worried. It appears the jury was simply making its own analysis of future medical expenses. Initially, it awarded $495,000 in medical damages, $505,000 in lost wages, and $2 million in non-economic damages.
With the court record showing only $4,700 in lost wages and $87,000 in medical expenses, both lawyers told the judge the verdict wouldn’t stand up on appeal. Domnarski agreed to re-charge the jury May 6.
Jurors deliberated 45 minutes, and then – reminiscent of the jury in the Paul Newman classic trial thriller, The Verdict, asked if they could change their $2 million non-economic damages figure. Domnarski once again charged the jurors, warning them not to let emotion sway them.
The jury knocked down the medical award and lost wages, but raised the non-economic amount to $3 million. With a 10 percent reduction for Jura’s comparative fault, the $2.4 million verdict was some $90,000 more than the original verdict.
Even before the settlement reduced that number, Clyons was philosophical about the matter. “I think it may have boiled down to a popularity contest in the end,” he said.
Jura, he said, came off as an appealing underdog, never given a fair shake by the police. His story was compelling, and this jury appeared determined to give it a happy ending.