$2.9 Million Dollar Verdict Upheld in Bicycle Injury Lawsuit

Edward Jazlowiecki, Blonski’s lawyer, said his client had to have a rod placed in her neck. She is able to walk, he said, but “she’s lucky she didn’t die.”  “She’s extremely happy” about the ruling, he said.

The state Supreme Court has upheld a $2.9 million judgment against the Metropolitan District Commission, saying the regional water and sewer authority was not entitled to immunity from a claim filed by a bicyclist who was seriously injured on its property more than a decade ago.

The ruling resulted from an appeal of a lawsuit filed by Maribeth Blonski, who was biking on a trail on MDC property in 2002 when she struck a gate that blocked a path in the Talcott Mountain Recreation Area in West Hartford. The MDC had decided to keep its gates closed at all times after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Blonski broke her neck. She “suffers from chronic pain, difficulty breathing, a permanent disability in her neck and other ailments,” according to the judges’ opinion.

Edward Jazlowiecki, Blonski’s lawyer, said his client had to have a rod placed in her neck. She is able to walk, he said, but “she’s lucky she didn’t die.”

“She’s extremely happy” about the ruling, he said.

A Superior Court jury awarded Blonski $2.9 million in May 2010.

Summing up the MDC’s argument, Jazlowiecki said, “The MDC is saying that they should have sovereign immunity because they’re a quasi-state agency.”

In an opinion released Friday, the Supreme Court found that “the trial court properly determined that the defendant was not entitled to immunity from the plaintiff’s claim.”

The trial court also “properly denied” the MDC’s motions to set aside the verdict, the opinion states. It was written by Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers; Judges Richard N. Palmer, Dennis G. Eveleigh and Andrew J. McDonald concurred.

The MDC released a written statement which said: “The MDC is disappointed in the decision affirming the verdict for Ms. Blonski.

“The District has allowed free recreational use of its reservoir facilities. The court found that the legislature did not include municipalities when it originally enacted immunity for those who provide these types of free benefits to the public. Fortunately, the General Assembly has corrected this inequity for not only the MDC, but all municipalities.”

According to the justice’s opinion, the MDC board voted in 1976 to close the roads on its 3,000-acre property in West Hartford because of vandalism, theft, motor vehicle accidents and drug and alcohol use. But the gates occasionally were left open.

After the terrorist attacks in 2001, however, the decision was made to keep the gates closed at all times to protect the water supply, the opinion states.

One of the gates, which consisted of 3-inch-wide pipes painted yellow, was at an entrance to Red Road, a paved road that runs through the West Hartford property. The road had lanes and other markings to indicate which way the bicyclists were supposed to travel.

On May 16, 2002, Blonski rode a bicycle on the road to videotape a segment on mountain biking for a cable television show she hosted, the justices said, citing court testimony. After taping the segment, she and a friend went for a bicycle ride.

As they headed back to the parking lot at the end of their ride, Blonski rode her bike in the wrong direction on Red Road, about 20 mph to 30 mph, with her head down.

“The plaintiff testified that the pipe gate suddenly appeared in front of her ‘out of nowhere,’ and she attempted to slide underneath it,” the opinion states.

“She was unable to do so and struck her head on the pipe, thereby incurring severe injuries to her cervical spine, including a burst fracture of the last cervical vertebrae, as well as other injuries.”

Despite her injuries, Blonski has recovered and can ride a bike again, Jazlowiecki said. She was at the beach Friday.

Jazlowiecki said he and his client are happy about the decision.

“I’m ecstatic. I’m glad for her, I’m glad for Mike,” he said of Michael Stratton, who tried the case. “It’s the right decision.”

Hartford attorney Steven D. Ecker prepared the appeal for Blonski. It was the second victory for Ecker before the Supreme Court this week. Ecker represented an anonymous child abuse victim for whom the court upheld a $2.75 million verdict against St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center on Wednesday.

Courant Staff Writer Edmund H. Mahony contributed to this story.