Tailgate death to prompt second civil suit

After Brendan Ross ’13 made his first court appearance Monday on criminal charges stemming from a fatal U-Haul crash at last November’s Harvard-Yale tailgate, an attorney for the mother of the deceased victim confirmed Thursday that his client would file a civil suit against Ross.

Ross was arraigned in New Haven Superior Court around noon Monday on misdemeanor charges of negligent homicide with a motor vehicle and reckless driving. At the court hearing, Ross’s New Haven-based attorney William Dow ’63 requested a one-month discovery period to review the state’s evidence, and the case was continued until June 12. Dow told the News that Ross will plead not guilty to the criminal charges against him, labeling the state’s case as “mistaken.”

Under state law, the misdemeanor charge of negligent homicide with a motor vehicle carries a maximum penalty of a $2,500 fine and six months imprisonment.

On the morning of Nov. 19, a U-Haul driven by Ross accelerated and swerved into the Yale Bowl’s D-Lot, killing 30-year-old Nancy Barry of Salem, Mass., and injuring Sarah Short SOM ’13 and Harvard employee Elizabeth Dernbach.

In addition to the criminal charges launched against Ross on Friday, he faces at least two civil suits. Last month, Short filed a civil suit against Ross and the U-Haul company of Connecticut for at least $15,000, claiming that she had sustained several “severe, painful and obvious injuries” from the crash. And Ralph Sbrogna, a Worcester, Mass.-based personal injury lawyer who represents Barry’s mother, Paula St. Pierre, told the News Thursday that St. Pierre would be filing a civil suit against Ross.

Sbrogna said he and his client will likely wait until the criminal case against Ross is resolved before filing their civil suit, so that they can access the state’s evidence regarding the incident. The nature of their suit will be determined their review of all evidence available after the criminal proceedings against Ross end, Sbrogna said.

Ross “applied no brakes [on the U-Haul] as he traveled through the crowd,” according to an arrest warrant application prepared by the New Haven Police Department. The warrant application concluded that Ross “failed to maintain control of his vehicle, and, instead, accelerated into a crowd of people.”

Although Ross passed a field sobriety test on the scene, he was taken to NHPD headquarters on Union Avenue for questioning. Immediately following the incident, the NHPD launched a forensics investigation, which concluded in early April.

A day after the crash, Dow attributed it to an “apparent vehicle malfunction.” But an NHPD mechanic “found no issues with the gas pedal, cable or throttle body” and said the U-Haul’s brake system was in “good working order.”

After the NHPD completed its forensics investigation last month, it forwarded the results to the state’s attorney’s office, which filed criminal charges against Ross “weeks ago,” NHPD spokesman David Hartman said. As part of a deal reached between Dow and the state’s attorney’s office, Ross turned himself in for arrest at NHPD headquarters Friday evening after he completed his Yale final exams.

“Brendan Ross is an exceptional student and member of the Yale and New Haven community and it is unfortunate that he finds himself in the situation he does,” Dow said.

After Ross’s arraignment Monday, Dow said he had only recently received information from the state about its case, and he would have experts examine the state’s materials over the coming month. In the meantime, Ross will return home to O’Fallon, Mo., for the summer, Dow said.

Michael Dearington, the state’s attorney for Connecticut’s New Haven district, declined to comment on the state’s case.

Michael Stratton, Short’s lawyer, said Short’s civil case might expand to include a suit against Yale for the configuration of the Yale Bowl lots, which allows trucks to drive into pedestrian areas.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said Saturday that the University would not comment on the ongoing legal proceedings against Ross.

The University tightened its tailgate rules in January, banning kegs and “box trucks” from tailgates, establishing a vehicle-free tailgating zone and requiring all attendees to leave the student tailgating area by kickoff.

Comments

  • observer

    So the other shoe drops, as I predicted that it would in the prior story.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I will not comment on this case.

    I will comment on the godawful U-Haul contraption itself which is awkward, even dangerous, to drive on ordinary surfaces let alone on a lawn or on dirt paths such as those surrounding Yale Bowl.

    How is it that a vehicle as large as a small carrier bus can be driven with an ordinary civilian driver’s license?

    If blame is to be assigned , perhaps the government entity which allows lay folk to drive what amounts to a blind box with notoriously confusing foot pedals, ought to be assigned some of the blame.

    I’m a big guy (6’2″, 200 lbs) with 50 years experience driving a car and I wouldn’t feel comfortable wielding a U-Haul in traffic or anywhere else.

    I suppose people need to sue in order to purge themselves of grief, but some other issues are raised here besides merely driver responsibility.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80

    • observer

      …. like YALE’s responsibilty for allowing such trucks, full of beer kegs, to be driven through throngs of walkers at a social gathering on its property.

      And I think, Paul, that the suit is intended to do more than “purge (the survivors) of grief” – the goal will also be to recompense a surviving husband and children for the loss of a wife and mother, and to punish those whose (alleged) negligence lead to this death.

      • 1yale3

        the beer kegs have nothing to do with the incident.

        • observer

          “…nothing to do with the incident?” Wasn’t the cargo of the truck beer kegs? If kegs had been banned last year instead of this, the truck wouldn’t have been there and the accident wouldn’t have occurred.

          • HighStreet2010

            You’re right, they probably would have needed a bigger truck to carry the beer in cans instead of keg form.

            The real issue that needed to be addressed is that they forced the trucks to come later than in years past because they wanted the ‘security’ (anti-drinking police) apparatus in place and wanted to limit the time people could spend drinking before kickoff. This resulted in the unintended consequence of having these trucks driving around when people were actually at the tailgate, rather than in place hours before as was the previous norm.

            And, of course, rather than putting forth sensible fixes like making the trucks be there early, not allowing any tailgaters into the area except to set up until a certain time or something along those lines, we get knee-jerk reactions against the beer kegs.

      • The Anti-Yale

        This is what I said:
        some other issues are raised here besides merely driver responsibility.

        PK

    • ldffly

      I’m inclined to agree that these vehicles can be trouble. It’s been awhile since I’ve driven this type of truck. I do remember that the accelerators were trouble. They tended to stick requiring increasing application of foot pressure. Finally, the foot pressure would depress the accelerator pedal and the vehicle would suddenly accelerate. Obviously, I don’t know that this happened in the tailgating tragedy, but I have my suspicions.

    • Yalie

      I’ve driven them. I don’t recall the pedals being much different from my car’s. How are they so?

      • ldffly

        As I said, it’s been awhile for me. The accelerator wouldn’t depress and accelerate the engine without a good deal of pressure. Increase pressure on the pedal and the vehicle would accelerate suddenly. Now, maybe a mechanic out there could explain this via accelerator linkages. I just don’t know.

        This also happens with automobiles. My sister has a late model Honda which tends to do this. If you try to accelerate easily, the pedal doesn’t respond. Press harder to get response and you suddenly accelerate.

  • Quals

    I am getting sick of these inappropriate laws and lawsuits caused by grieving parents. I’m sorry but they are going to have to find another way to channel their grief.

    • ernie

      What are you talking about? If Ross was negligient–and the courts will now decide whether he was–then the parents of the victim have every right to damages.

      • observer

        … or decide that Yale was contributorily negligence by permitting a rental truck carrying beer kegs to plow through a crowd of walkers.

        • Yale12

          Why do you keep obsessively mentioning kegs? What does the content of the trucks have to do with anything, given that Ross wasn’t drunk? The truck could have been filled with cupcakes and it wouldn’t have changed anything.

      • ms2676

        they may have every right, but, why go after a 21yr old who has no money to pay on would could potentially be a 6-7 figure settlement??

        • ernie

          Why? Because they believe he was responsible through negligience for their child’s death.

          When I said “every right” I meant they have a robust moral right as well as a legal right to do so; the loss of a child is enormous, and if Ross is found culpable, it’s entirely fair, in addition to being legal, that he owe substantial damages.

        • haletinytea

          Not speaking to the specific case here, but in civil suits, particularly where there may be insurance or other parties with money potentially liable, plaintiffs often name the alleged actor, regardless of their potential solvency after a judgment because proving up the alleged actor’s actions is necessary to show liability on the parts of others. Lawsuits are expensive and plaintiffs’ attorneys, particularly those working on a contingency are often unimpressed by actions or measures that will not return money. Put another way, while they may sympathize with grief, attorneys surprisingly enough are often running businesses rather than charities and want to get paid.

  • CharlieWalls

    Mr. Keane should check the web about U-Haul trucks. They are in fact common, larger pick-up trucks with large box bodies. The basics in the cab are on the roads all the time driven by many thousands. Moreover, the few I have rented could never be called ‘contraptions’. The stupid idea was using such over-kill to bring a few kegs to those events.

    • The Anti-Yale

      My recollection is that there is no rear window,only rear view side mirrors. It is in effect a blind box . Further, my recollectiuon is that the accelorator pedal and the brake pedal are oddly positioned so that a person with a lerge foot muight inadvertently hit both. This is my recollectoion. I could be incorrect.

      PK

  • joey00

    Thousands rent and drive U-haul trucks every day, with no problems.the young and the old rent these trucks and get their belongings moved with out so much as a buck or stutter..accidents do happen , and for the most part when they happen a lawsuit happens immediately after -that’s life

  • The Anti-Yale

    I recall there being something freaky about the accelerator/brake pedals in a Uhaul I rented years ago.

    It was as if the accelerator was shaped exactly like the brake pedal and,instead of being depressed with a hinge at the bottom attached to the floor and the top of the pedal being free, the accelerator pedal had to be held down with the foot as if it were a brake pedal itself.

    It was a freaky situation fraught with the potential for confusion.

    Perhaps this was not in the model Mr. Ross was driving, but I recall it as distinctly confusing and odd in the Uhaul I was driving.

    PK

    • Quals

      I love how every single Yale story has some sort of connection to antiyale’s life. God has a sense of humor.

      • lakia

        That’s because he has no life. Apparently.

  • The Anti-Yale

    When you’ve lived 67+ years, the same thing will happen to you, only you’ll just THINK it instead of post it.

    PS:

    My point was serious. What kind of accelerator pedal was in Mr. Ross’s U-haul? If it looked like a brake and had to be held down like a brake instead of gently flexed like a pedal, it COULD be important. Is Mr. Ross’s lawyer awake, or is that a snore I hear in the background? And the YDN reporters?

    • observer

      Paul, why do you always try to lead every thread into the ditch?

      • The Anti-Yale

        What an unfortunate metaphor .

  • Branford73

    haletinytea is correct. Aside from any ethical point to be made in a civil lawsuit, there can be monetary compensation if Mr. Ross is held liable (i.e. legally responsible) in civil court. The Connecticut minimum liability coverage on motor vehicles is $20,000, which would be the least that the U-Haul company insured Ross for as the operator of its rented vehicle.

    Ross’ parents (if he were still a resident of his parents’ house, which most undergraduates are) likely insured their own cars and Brendan is very likely insured under those policies, so they would apply to anyone hurt or killed by Brendan’s negligence also. Only the Ross family and their insurance company know how much is at stake in those insurance policies, but it could be anywhere from $20,000 to $500,000 or more. The Ross family insurance, assuming it exists and does apply to Brendan, would be on top of the U-Haul coverage.

    So, there is likely to be sufficient insurance coverage to justify a civil law suit.

    Plus if a civil judgment after a trial is entered against Ross, that judgment would be collectible against him for a long time, 20 years in my state, unless and until Ross declares bankruptcy.

    The rental agency and/or Yale would be included, even if the chances of fixing either with liability are remote, because they have deep pockets beyond whatever insurance they may have for such claims.

    • haletinytea

      Thanks for the insight, particularly re term over which a judgment might be collectible.

  • Branford73

    My post above was supposed to be a reply to this:

    > ms2676
    >
    > they may have every right, but, why go
    > after a 21yr old who has no money to
    > pay on would could potentially be a
    > 6-7 figure settlement??

    • ms2676

      Branford73, my point simply is that a civil suit will not bring back the victims of this tragic accident. To bring suit against a 21yr old with probably nothing to his name at this point is useless, and since Ross is 21yrs, he is legally an adult. I don’t know what the status of him being on his parents insurance is, only he, his family, and his lawyers know the answer to that questions.

  • observer

    They won’t only be suing the driver – a penniless (at this point) 21-year-old, but also the owner of the truck and Yale, which allowed a truck carrying beer kegs to drive through a place where a lot of people were on foot. (The fact that the policy has since been changed might, arguably, be evidence that Yale acknowledges some liability for creating a dangerous situation.)

    The truck company and Yale would, if found contributorily negligent, be liable for some or all of any damages.

    You always sue everybody, on the ground that the deep pocketed party will ultimately have to pay if even 1% contributorily negligent.

    • Branford73

      I don’t want to be a d***, but I can’t let this post go by uncorrected. Connecticut, like most other states, does not allow into evidence at trial remedial measures the defendant took after the accident took place, except in product liability cases where changes in design may be admitted.

      “Contributory negligence” is a term applied to the possible negligence of a plaintiff (the injured party suing) which in some states, bars the claim entirely. Connecticut is a modified comparative negligence state, which allows recovery if the plaintiff is not found by the jury to be more than 50% negligent in causing his or her injury. Based on the descriptions of the accident contributory negligence is not a factor.

      Connecticut abolished joint and several liability, under which a 1% negligent party might have to pay it all, probably when it adopted its comparative negligence rules, which are part of the same statute:

      “If the plaintiff’s damages are determined to be proximately caused by
      the negligence of more than one party, each party against whom recovery is allowed shall be liable to the plaintiff only for such party’s proportionate share of the recoverable economic and non-economic damages.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-572h(c).

      If one of several defendants found liable cannot pay its portion, there is a method to reallocate collection among the other liable defendants under a formula set out in subsection (g) of the statute referenced above.

      [A link to the statute is here: http://law.justia.com/codes/connecticut/2005/title52/sec52-572h.html ]

      Also, as others have said, the cargo being beer is completely irrelevant to the issue of liability of any target defendant. If the weight is a factor it could have been water or chairs and tables.