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Ventura v. Town of East Haven

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

January 31, 2017


          Argued September 21, 2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, Wilson, J.

          Aaron S. Bayer, with whom was Tadhg A.J. Dooley, for the appellant (named defendant).

          James J. Healy, with whom were Joel T. Faxon, and, on the brief, Timothy P. Pothin and Jason K. Gamsby, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Keller, Prescott and West Js.


          KELLER, J.

         The defendant, the town of East Haven, [1]appeals from the judgment rendered in favor of the plaintiff, Thomas Ventura, after the jury returned a verdict awarding him damages for personal injuries he sustained when he was struck by a motor vehicle driven by a private individual, Vladimir Trnka. The jury concluded that the defendant was not immune from liability because, earlier in the evening on the day of the accident, East Haven police officer Jeffrey Strand, after investigating an unrelated domestic violence incident involving Trnka, had a clear ministerial duty to tow Trnka's vehicle on the basis of the vehicle's invalid registration and improper plates. The court denied the defendant's motions to direct or to set aside the verdict.

         On appeal, the defendant claims that the trial court erred when it failed to (1) direct a verdict for the defendant on the basis of governmental immunity; (2) direct or set aside the verdict on the ground that the plaintiff had not produced sufficient evidence that Strand's alleged negligence actually or proximately caused the plaintiff's injuries; and (3) set aside the jury's verdict because the court admitted irrelevant and prejudicial testimony regarding Trnka's possible intoxication and agitation, and permitted the plaintiff's expert to testify about East Haven police procedures despite his having no special knowledge about them. We agree with the defendant's first claim and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the trial court.[2]

         On the basis of the evidence presented, the jury reasonably could have found the following facts. On November 4, 2006, Strand was dispatched to investigate a ‘‘[p]ossible domestic'' incident occurring inside a ‘‘[l]arge white work van in the McDonald's drive-thru'' with an ‘‘[i]rate male . . . operator.'' The person who called 911 described the driver as possibly being ‘‘on drugs'' or ‘‘drunk'' and ‘‘nodding out.'' The caller further described the driver as ‘‘punching the ceiling'' and ‘‘not normal.'' Upon arriving at the McDonald's, Strand identified a vehicle in the drive-through lane that he believed might be the white work van described by dispatch. He pulled his cruiser ‘‘face to face'' with the white work van, and walked around the van to approach the driver from behind, as he was ‘‘on a . . . domestic violence call.''

         While approaching the driver, Strand radioed in the license plate number, which dispatch confirmed as ‘‘an ‘89 FORD cutaway cargo van, white . . . out of Towns-end Ave. Val Trnka, ‘07 expiration.'' Despite believing that the ‘‘white work van'' that dispatch described was the vehicle in front of him, Strand was mistaken in that it was actually a 1997 white Chevy box truck.[3] He did not ask for registration or proof of insurance, and did not check the emblems on the vehicle to ensure that it was the make and model dispatch had described. Strand then instructed Trnka, the driver, to pull into a parking spot so he could continue his investigation. Victoria Conte, another police officer, arrived on the scene and helped Strand separate and interview Trnka and his girlfriend, Kristen D'Aniello, who was a passenger in the truck. After determining that there was no probable cause for arrest because there was no physical violence between Trnka and D'Aniello during the period of time they were in the drive-through, Strand and Conte further concluded that there was no need to administer a field sobriety test to Trnka. Strand asked Trnka and D'Aniello for their driver's licenses, but neither could produce one. He subsequently called dispatch to run their names through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) database to check for valid driver's licenses and National Crime Information Center database to check for any outstanding warrants. The dispatcher only was able to confirm that there were no outstanding warrants for either individual, because the DMV database was malfunctioning. Because Strand could not confirm that Trnka had a valid driver's license, he decided to drive Trnka home[4] and directed Trnka to leave his truck parked in the McDonald's parking lot and keep his keys.[5]Conte drove D'Aniello to her residence.

         Fifty-six minutes later, Trnka retrieved his truck from the McDonald's parking lot and drove it to the intersection of Townsend Avenue and Park Lane in New Haven, less than one mile from Trnka's residence. The plaintiff, an eighteen year old high school student at that time, was entering his vehicle, which was parked on the side of the road. Trnka hit the plaintiff with his vehicle, causing him to suffer severe injuries including several compound fractures and the rupture of both testicles. Trnka fled the scene. Shortly thereafter, a radio transmission indicated that a hit-and-run had occurred on Townsend Avenue. As Strand was still patrolling, he radioed for more information because he believed the driver of the fleeing vehicle might attempt to enter East Haven. When Strand was informed that the vehicle's description was a ‘‘large white pickup truck, '' or a ‘‘box truck, a white truck, '' he realized that it might be the same vehicle that he had previously directed Trnka to leave in the McDonald's parking lot, [6] and ‘‘mov[ed] in the direction of the lot at that point.'' After informing his supervisor that the truck that was the subject of his earlier stop at the McDonald's was no longer there, Strand subsequently drove to Trnka's residence on Townsend Avenue to further investigate his suspicion that Trnka's vehicle may have been involved in the hit-and-run.

         At Trnka's residence, Strand immediately spotted a white box truck on the property and radioed Sergeant Frank Montagna, who was then at the accident scene, for additional information regarding the vehicle involved. He further checked the license plate of the truck at Trnka's residence against the license plate number he had earlier called in at the McDonald's, and found that they matched. Montagna then relayed that the vehicle involved was a white box truck with a missing driver's side mirror and red paint transfer on the passenger side. Strand corroborated the damage to the truck and stated that such damage was not present at the time of the incident in the McDonald's parking lot. Strand then requested that New Haven police be dispatched to Trnka's residence, because they had jurisdiction over the New Haven hit-and-run.

         New Haven police officer Mark Foster arrested Trnka based on the evidence of the red paint transfer, the broken mirror, and Strand's statements that the white box truck was the same truck that he had encountered earlier and that the damage to the driver's side had not been present earlier. Trnka was charged with evasion of responsibility in violation of General Statutes § 14-224 and failure to drive in the proper lane in violation of General Statutes § 14-236. Foster, as part of the motor vehicle investigation, further determined that the license plate affixed to the truck did not match the description of the vehicle to which that plate had been assigned and that Trnka was driving without valid insurance or registration, determinations that were not made by Strand at the time he investigated the report of the domestic violence incident. Trnka was, therefore, further charged with misuse of plates in violation of General Statutes § 14-147, operating an unregistered motor vehicle in violation of General Statutes § 14-12a, and operating a motor vehicle without insurance in violation of General Statutes § 14-213b.

         Although Foster was aware that the 911 caller, when reporting the earlier possible domestic violence incident, stated that there may have been drugs or alcohol involved, Foster did not smell alcohol on Trnka or believe that there was probable cause to conduct a field sobriety test. In Strand's case incident report, [7] he described Trnka as ‘‘highly agitated'' and ‘‘emotional, '' after describing the alleged domestic violence incident as a ‘‘verbal argument'' between ‘‘two people sitting in a vehicle.''[8]

         The plaintiff subsequently sought to recover damages for his injuries and commenced the present action against Strand[9] and the defendant, alleging that Strand negligently violated a ministerial duty imposed on him by the East Haven Police Department Tow Board Rules & Regulations (tow rules) by failing to have Trnka's truck towed from the McDonald's parking lot. The plaintiff's operative complaint alleged that Strand ‘‘failed to have Trnka's [truck] towed and impounded as required in every case involving misuse of plates, lack of insurance or registration by rules promulgated by and for the East Haven police, '' and ‘‘failed to secure Trnka's [truck] so that he could not return and operate it unlawfully in violation of due care and police procedures.'' In particular, he alleged that paragraph 7 of the tow rules required that ‘‘[a]ll motor vehicle violations are to be towed to include unregistered and misuse of plates. Operators of these vehicles are not allowed to park [the] vehicle or leave [it] in private parking areas.'' The complaint further alleged that the defendant was directly liable for Strand's negligence under General Statutes § 52-557n (a) (1) (A).[10] In its answer, the defendant raised several special defenses, including that of governmental immunity.

         During the trial, the plaintiff introduced into evidence a copy of the tow rules. This document, effective September 1, 1998, was prefaced by a memorandum issued by then Chief of Police Leonard I. Gallo stating that ‘‘[a]ll establishments who tow for the East Haven Police Department must adhere to these Rules & Regulations.'' The first paragraph of the tow rules provides that ‘‘any company or person with towing equipment and having their business within the Town of East Haven may make application to the East Haven Police Department to be on the East Haven Police Department rotating tow list provided they conform to the following rules and regulations.''

         The defendant moved for a directed verdict after the close of the plaintiff's case-in-chief. The court reserved decision on the motion for directed verdict, as permitted under Practice Book § 16-37, and allowed the defense to proceed. In his closing argument, the plaintiff argued to the jury that the tow rules applied in equal force to police officers and to businesses conducting towing operations at the direction of the police. The plaintiff further argued that Strand was negligent in not towing and impounding, or otherwise securing, Trnka's truck on the basis of the motor vehicle violations that he knew existed at the time of his investigation of the possible domestic violence incident in the McDonald's parking lot, and because of that knowledge, he did not have the discretion to decline to tow the truck. The defendant argued that Strand did not know of the motor vehicle violations existing at the time of the stop, and that even if he was aware of such violations, the decision to tow was discretionary, and thus, the defendant was protected by governmental immunity.

         Regarding the defendant's special defense of governmental immunity, the court instructed the jury that ‘‘[i]n this case, the parties agree and the court instructs you that . . . Strand was a municipal employee engaged in a governmental function at the time of the plaintiff's alleged injuries. The parties disagree, however, as to whether . . . Strand was free to exercise discretion when acting or failing to act as he did.

         ‘‘The question for you . . . [to decide] is whether . . . Strand was performing a discretionary or ministerial act when the plaintiff was allegedly injured by his conduct. As I stated earlier, the burden is on the defendant, who desires the benefit of governmental immunity, to persuade you by a . . . fair preponderance of the evidence, that . . . Strand's actions or inactions were the result of the exercise of discretion rather than the failure to comport with a mandatory course of conduct.

         ‘‘If you find that the defendant has failed to meet the burden of establishing this special defense, then no immunity would protect the defendant from liability if you determine that . . . Strand was negligent, and that negligence proximately caused the injuries claimed by the plaintiff, you would therefore find in favor of the plaintiff. If, however, you find that the defendant has satisfied this burden, you would then render a verdict for the defendant.''

         The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff and found damages in the amount of $12, 200, 000, finding, by way of its response to a jury interrogatory, that Strand negligently violated a ministerial duty to tow Trnka's truck.[11]Following trial, on January 3, 2014, the defendant filed a renewed motion for a directed verdict and a motion to set aside the verdict.[12] It also filed a motion seeking a remittitur in the amount of $11, 000, 000 and a collateral source reduction. In a memorandum of decision dated July 10, 2014, the court denied the defendant's renewed motion for a directed verdict and its motion to set aside the verdict, but granted the motion for remittitur in the amount of $6, 000, 000, thereby reducing the verdict to $6, 200, 000.

         In denying the defendant's motions to direct or set aside the verdict, the court found, on the issue of governmental immunity, that ‘‘[t]here was sufficient evidence adduced during the plaintiff's case-in-chief on the issue of whether Strand's actions were ministerial or discretionary. . . . The plain language of [paragraph 7 of the tow rules] falls within the definition of ministerial. There is no exercise of judgment in the language of the regulation.'' Later, while rendering judgment for the plaintiff on March 13, 2015, the court granted the defendant's request for a collateral source reduction, and reduced the judgment to $5, 977, 553.59 before interest.[13] This appeal followed.

         Before turning to the specifics of the defendant's first claim, we set forth our standard of review for determining whether a court has erred in denying a motion for a directed verdict. ‘‘Whether the evidence presented by the plaintiff was sufficient to withstand a motion for directed verdict is a question of law, over which our review is plenary. . . . Directed verdicts are not favored. . . . A trial court should direct a verdict only when a jury could not reasonably and legally have reached any other conclusion. . . . In reviewing the trial court's decision [as to whether] to direct a verdict in favor of a defendant we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. . . . Although it is the jury's right to draw logical deductions and make reasonable inferences from the facts proven . . . it may not resort to mere conjecture and speculation. . . . A directed verdict is justified if . . . the evidence is so weak that it would be proper for the court to set aside a verdict rendered for the other party.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Ibar v.Stratek Plastic Ltd., 145 Conn.App. 401, 410, 76 A.3d 202, cert. denied, 310 Conn. 938, 79 A.3d 891 (2013); see also Perez-Dickson v.Bridgeport, 304 Conn. 483, ...

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