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Estate of couple killed by falling tree in Westport allowed to sue state

Updated 11:59 am, Thursday, April 4, 2013
  • Connecticut DOT workers clear tree debris along the Merritt Parkway's northbound area just past the Marvin Ridge Rd. overpass in New Canaan, Conn. on Tuesday Dec. 11, 2012. The state has undertaken a comprehensive cutting effort to remove damaged and unhealthy trees. The effort has drawn the attention of a couple of conservation-minded parkway admirers but the DOT maintains that taking down potentially hazardous trees is necessary for safety reasons. Photo: Cathy Zuraw / Stamford Advocate
    Connecticut DOT workers clear tree debris along the Merritt Parkway's northbound area just past the Marvin Ridge Rd. overpass in New Canaan, Conn. on Tuesday Dec. 11, 2012. The state has undertaken a comprehensive cutting effort to remove damaged and unhealthy trees. The effort has drawn the attention of a couple of conservation-minded parkway admirers but the DOT maintains that taking down potentially hazardous trees is necessary for safety reasons. Photo: Cathy Zuraw

 

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The estate of the husband and wife killed nearly six years ago when part of a 70-foot-tall tree toppled onto their Volvo sport-utility vehicle on the Merritt Parkway in Westport can sue the state.

The memorandum of a decision issued by state Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. on Tuesday said the plaintiffs raised issues about the June 9, 2007, incident that led him to conclude the state could be held liable if it were a private individual for the fatal injuries of Joseph Stavola, 46, and his wife, Jean Serocke Stavola, 44, of Pelham Manor, N.Y. Their two young sons survived the crash.

The state Attorney General's Office had opposed the claim last year, maintaining the state Department of Transportation had taken precautions to identify potentially damaged or weakened trees along the scenic parkway.

David G. Hill, a Glastonbury lawyer for the couple's estates and their two sons, said he expects to refile their lawsuit contending the DOT failed to clear the damaged tree from the highway.

An earlier filing of the suit, dismissed in 2008, sought $15 million in damages -- $11 million for wrongful death, pre-mortem suffering, lost wages and future earnings for the couple's estates, and $2 million each for their two sons, James and William, who were in the back seat of the car, according to Hill.

"The family is thrilled they are now going to get their day in court," Hill said. "We'll be filing suit immediately."

Jaclyn Falkowski, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General George Jepsen's office, said Tuesday the state would defend itself in court.

"This was a tragic situation, and we express our sympathies to this family," Falkowski said. "However, the Office of the Attorney General has a responsibility to defend the state, and we will address this case fully in court."

The Stavola family was traveling south on the parkway around 9:15 p.m. on June 9, 2007, when a limb from a white pine smashed into the windshield of their vehicle, fatally injuring the couple in front of their two young sons, who suffered only minor injuries.

Hill said he would present evidence that state transportation landscape crews responsible for removing trees did not check for sick or damaged trees on the Merritt Parkway in a diligent manner.

"Anyone who looks at this would be shocked at the lack of standards by the DOT for reviewing trees and further shocked by their inability to even follow those minimal standards," Hill said.

The accident prompted then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell to order the DOT to review the state's policies for evaluating and removing trees on the historically recognized wooded thoroughfare in 2007.

Last fall, the DOT began a program to cull storm-damaged or unhealthy trees from the parkway borders and medians to improve safety and reduce the length of shutdowns in the aftermath of major storms.

After Superstorm Sandy last year, the parkway was shut for two days while crews removed fallen trees, other two-day shutdowns having followed Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm in 2011.

From 2007 through 2011, there were 17 fatal crashes on the Merritt Parkway, 10 of them involving a vehicle striking a tree off the roadway, according to the DOT.

Kevin Nursick, a DOT spokesman, said the removal program continues on the parkway and other state roads to assure that trees remaining are healthy.

"Tree removals continue on the Merritt, as well as around the state, for that matter," Nursick said. "Work on the Merritt will likely take place for years to come."