On June 8, 2015, 12-year-old Gabriel Goncalves's life was changed forever when he sustained permanent traumatic brain damage in a school bus crash.
On November 25, 2019, a Waterbury jury returned a $23 million verdict as a measure of the value of the quality of life he lost.
The crash occurred June 8, 2015, when a school bus, carrying three disabled students and a bus monitor, hit a tree on Todd Road in Wolcott, Connecticut. According to the driver, Mark Hudobenko, he had to swerve to avoid an oncoming green car that had crossed the center line into his lane.
Two drivers of vehicles behind the school bus who witnessed the crash said they did not see the green car, but one of the students on the bus said that he saw a green car in a location different from where the bus driver said it was. The existence of the green car was one of several issues the jury needed to sort out, according to attorneys Michael D'Amico and Jeremy D'Amico of D'Amico & Pettinicchi, LLC, who represented Gabriel.
"Ultimately, the jury found that the green car did exist and did contribute to the crash," said Attorney Michael D'Amico. "But the jury held the bus driver more at fault for what happened because he didn't follow his training; he put the passengers at risk and caused Gabriel's catastrophic injury."
The attorneys explained that according to the bus company's training protocols, if the driver saw a dangerous vehicle further up the road as testified to by the bus driver, he was supposed to slow down, keep his eye on the vehicle, and pull over to the side of the road. But the airbag control module, which recorded the speed of the bus, indicated that the bus was traveling at 45 miles per hour before the crash and hit the tree at 43 miles per hour. The speed limit on Todd Road at the time of the crash was 35 miles per hour.
As a result of the collision, Gabriel sustained skull fractures and multiple brain bleeds requiring emergency surgery and causing permanent areas of dead brain tissue. According to his attorneys, the brain injury completely derailed the steady progress Gabriel had made in school.
"At the time of the crash, Gabriel, a child with autism and limited language abilities, was bright, curious, and enjoyed school and his family. He was a child in the special needs program in the Wolcott public school system. He was integrated with some mainstream classes, lunch, and specials, and he was progressing academically and developing independent living skills. As a child with autism, he had periodic behavioral issues, but they were manageable and short-lived," attorney Jeremy D'Amico explained.
"After the crash, his personality changed completely. His behavior deteriorated, and he became unpredictable, aggressive and impulsive. It became unsafe for him to remain in public schools and he had to be transferred to a private school specializing in managing behaviors. Worse still, he lost the ability to recognize his mom as his mom, and his brother as his brother. He became indifferent towards his family members."
Experts retained by the defense argued that Gabriel's symptoms and behavioral decline were a result of his autism and puberty and not caused by the brain damage. However, experts from the Yale Child Study Center and the Connecticut Center for Special Needs testified that autism did not explain the rapid and significant change in Gabriel after the crash.
Ultimately, the jury gave Gabriel a voice. The jury awarded $23,050,000. $3,050,000 consisted of economic damages and $20,000,000 was non-economic damages. The jury assigned 74% responsibility to the bus driver, Mark Hudobenko, and 26% to the driver of the green car.
Worhunsky Corp., the school bus company that employed Hudobenko, is responsible for his portion of the damages. Utica National Insurance is responsible for the green car's portion in an uninsured motorist claim.
Post-verdict motions are still pending, and according to the attorneys, the defense may appeal. "We intend to keep fighting as long as it takes," said Jeremy D'Amico. "We're doing this to make sure Gabriel is able to make the most of the residual abilities and opportunities he has left."
"What happened to Gabriel, the pain his family has gone through, should never have happened. This was preventable. Our hope is that this verdict will protect other Connecticut families from similar tragedies." said Jeremy and Michael D'Amico.
The case is in Waterbury Superior Court, docket number UWY-cv-15-6028864.