A man and his son were awarded $8.6 million after a post-verdict hearing by a Staten Island judge for psychological damages stemming from a crash in which they were hurt and two family members killed. A jury had refused to award those damages as a part of its verdict. Justice Joseph J. Maltese said the jurors had failed to consider the “extreme emotional distress” that Gary Motelson and his younger son suffered in witnessing the deaths of their loved ones, while exposing themselves to the same dangerous conditions in a Ford SUV.
The man and his son were among four passengers in a 1998 Explorer driven by the man’s father, Steven Motelson, on July 1, 2000. The group was returning to Staten Island from a Boy Scout camp-o-ree in Narrowsburg, New York, when the vehicle overturned on a state highway. Steven Motelson, 60, a respected Scout leader and Mariner Harbor resident, was killed in the wreck along with Gary’s nine-year-old son. Gary Motelson, then 36, and his five-year-old son survived the accident, as did a 21-year-old passenger. The Motelsons contended the SUV suddenly accelerated and lost its brakes as Steven Motelson fought to regain control. Ford maintained that the elder Motelson allowed the vehicle to drift off the road and sent it careening when he overcompensated on the steering wheel.
After a four-week trial, a jury found that Steven Motelson’s death was due to a defectively designed roof-support system. The elder Motelson was killed when the driver’s-side roof shredded on the first of nearly four rolls, exposing his head. The panel awarded $6.5 million to Steven Motelson’s widow and estate. The jury, however, found that Ford was not liable for the death of Gary Motelson’s older son or for the injuries Mr. Motelson and his younger boy suffered.
Jurors determined the two boys and the 21-year-old passenger were not wearing seat belts when they were thrown from the SUV’s rear seats. Gary Motelson was sitting in the front passenger seat. The third rear-seat passenger, who was not a family member, settled prior to the trial with Ford Motor Credit Company, the vehicle owner and lessor. Ford Motor Company, the SUV manufacturer, was a named Defendant. After the trial, both the Plaintiffs and Defendants moved to set aside the verdict.
In his post-verdict ruling, Judge Maltese awarded Gary Motelson $3.2 million and his younger son $5.4 million for medicine and psychiatric care, as well as for past and future pain and suffering. While jurors found Ford not responsible for the younger boy’s physical injuries, the judge said the panel “failed to discern the difference” between those injuries and the psychological trauma he (the boy) endured in witnessing the death of his older brother and grandfather. The judge ruled that the boy was in the so-called “zone of danger,” which means he was threatened with bodily harm created by the defendant’s negligence and entitled to compensation. In explaining his ruling, the judge wrote:
As to the extreme emotional distress suffered by [the boy], it is irrelevant whether he was wearing a seat belt. He would still have witnessed the trauma of this horrific accident resulting in his uncontested permanent psychiatric condition.
Judge Maltese said Gary Motelson also was entitled to recover damages. In addition, the judge also ruled that Gary Motelson’s wife, Elissa, was entitled to loss of consortium and awarded her $150,000. Although Judge Maltese believed, based on the evidence, the rear passengers were seat-belted, he said he would not overturn the jury’s finding to the contrary. Consequently, he would not award damages to the estate of the Motelson boy who was killed. The judge, meanwhile, reduced by $1.5 million the total $6.5 million award for Steven Motelson’s estate and his widow. Ford contended the amount was excessive. Judge Maltese ruled the panel had overestimated Gary Motelson’s future potential earnings and reduced the award to the estate by $173,000 to $1.3 million. The judge reduced Mrs. Motelson’s award from $5 million to $3.7 million, saying part of it duplicated the estate award.
Source: Staten Island Advance
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