On August 30, 2001 Kenzie Godfrey was an honors physics student about to begin her senior year at Hunter College in Manhattan. She was headed towards a NASA research position and then a PhD upon graduation. Her dreams turned into nightmares that day when the 21 year old was a rear seat passenger in a taxicab that was involved in an accident with another vehicle at 22nd Street and Third Avenue.

Kenzie was thrown forward and her head hit the plexiglass partition behind the cab driver. In pain with a lump on the side of her head and a swollen eye, she was taken by ambulance to the local hospital where she was treated and released. Within the ensuing week, though, Kenzie was disoriented and dizzy and her head pain was debilitating.

On September 6th, Kenzie sought treatment at the emergency room at which time a CAT scan was performed showing a temporal lobe contusion and a subdural hematoma.

Kenzie’s injuries were thought to be minimal. Due to the hematoma, though, she was admitted for observation for two days and then discharged.

Unfortunately, Kenzie got worse. Much worse. Her symptoms cascaded with headaches, fatigue, problems concentrating, depression and anxiety. She finished one more semester of college but dropped out because she was unable to read anymore. She often remains inside her apartment, in the dark, due to extreme light sensitivity. Despite trying, she’s been unable to work. She’s taking extensive medication and participates in a traumatic brain injury (TBI) program that provides her with home care assistance. Her doctors testified she will get worse and worse and requires full time home health aid.

In her ensuing lawsuit against the drivers and owners of the cars involved in the crash, Kenzei’s TBI was so bad that the jurors awarded nearly $11,000,00 in damages, as follows:

  1. pain and suffering – $3,592,000 ($260,000 past – 7 years, $3,332,000 future – 48 years)
  2. past and future lost earnings and benefits – about $1,200,000
  3. future medical expenses – about $6,000,000

In Godfrey v. G.E. Capital Auto Lease, Inc. (1st Dept. 2011), the appellate court has addressed several liability and damages issues raised by the parties and ruled as follows:

  • future pain and suffering damages should be reduced by $832,000 (from $3,332,000 to $2,500,000)
  • there was sufficient evidence to sustain the jury’s awards for medical expenses and loss of earnings and benefits
  • the plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt must be addressed in a new trial to determine the amount by which her damages should be reduced (the defense argued that her head injuries would not have been so severe had she been wearing a seatbelt)

The appellate court ordered a substantial reduction ($832,000) of the pain and suffering damages after setting out several details of plaintiff’s brain injuries; however, there was no discussion at all as to the court’s analysis of prior cases that were briefed by the parties. Here, then, are some of the cases:

  • Paek v. City of New York (1st Dept. 2006) – $4,300,000 ($1,300,000 past, $3,000,000 future) for a 35 year old highly skilled pattern maker  who sustained a skull fracture and epidural hematoma resulting in severe cognitive dysfunction, depression and disabling headaches.
  • Garrison v. Lapine (3d Dept. 2010) – $2,500,000 ($500,000 past – 6 years, $2,000,000 future – 31 years) [discussed previously, here] for a 44 year old housewife with post-concussive syndrome and axonal injuries manifesting in severely erratic behavior and disabilities.
  • Popolizio v. County of Schenectady (3d Dept. 2009) – $2,100,000 ($350,000 past – 5 1/2 years, $1,750,000 future – 23 years) [discussed previously, here] for a 56 year old man who sustained TBI manifesting in cognitive function bordering on mental retardation and depression.

Inside Information:

  • Perhaps the biggest issue in the case was buried in the middle of the court’s opinion – ownership of the jeep. Under New York’s Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 388, the owner of a vehicle is vicariously liable for the damages caused by the negligence of the vehicle driver. In 1995, Larissa Sgarlato leased the jeep from G.E. Capital Auto Lease, Inc. (GE)  and at the end of the four year term she wanted to buy the car. A bill of sale was signed as was a retail installment agreement setting forth the terms of the purchase agreement and in 1999 GE delivered to Ms. Sgarlato an executed certificate of title; however, GE was still listed as the owner on the date of the accident. Both the jury and the appellate court found, though, that the parties intended to transfer ownership from GE to Sgarlato and that when the accident occurred GE was no longer an owner.
  • The ownership issue was so big because, as I hear it, there was only $100,000 of liability insurance covering the jeep. Without GE’s "deep pockets," the practical limit of any recovery is the amount of insurance coverage.
  • The defense did not call any physicians to testify as to plaintiff’s TBI.