$6.2 Million Verdict in Fatal Crash in Seymour
Matt Blackwell, a beloved son, brother, and friend was only 22 years old when his life was taken on the evening of October 7th. He had spent that day at two local bars with friends, some of whom he had known since childhood. They watched football together and, as young men will sometimes do, drank beer.
Matt was not driving a car that evening and instead was relying on an acquaintance, Ken, to drive him home at the end of the Sunday games. Ken had too much to drink that night and was over the legal limit for drinking and driving.
Also at the two bars that evening was a Seymour police detective named Bailey Cook. Detective Cook had many years of experience as a police officer and was trained to recognize the signs of intoxication. However, he was off duty at the time and was watching the games with a buddy of his. There was evidence that at some point during the day Detective Cook recognized that the guys, including the driver Ken, had too much to drink. Instead of stopping Ken from driving, Detective Cook actually gave Ken and the others his Seymour Police Department business card with a message he had written on the back which said, “Don’t **** with my boys”. Detective Cook told the boys that if they got pulled over they should show it to the officer and that it was a “get out of jail card”.
The boys left the bar with Ken driving and tragically Ken crashed the car on Route 8 southbound while traveling at a high speed. In the accident, Matt Blackwell was killed as was Ken and a friend of Matt’s named John. John’s younger brother Marty survived the accident with terrible injuries, including the loss of his leg.
Matt’s parents, Tammy and David, wanted justice for their son. They knew that those responsible for Matt’s death would put up a significant fight. They thought they were serving their son’s best interests when they hired one of Connecticut’s largest law firms to represent them. However, Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell did not realize that firm did very little personal injury work and minimal trial work.
After two years of seeing very little in terms of progress or results, they decided they needed a specialist and hired Tremont Sheldon P.C. to take over their case. Attorney agreed to represent them and quickly went to work collecting money from various uninsured motorist policies which they had purchased to protect their family in case they were hurt or killed in an accident caused by a person who had insufficient auto insurance, as was the case with Ken. Attorney also pursued a claim against the last bar that served the drinks to Ken before the accident and reached a settlement with the bar owner as well.
However, from the start, the Blackwell family always insisted that they wanted Detective Cook to be held liable for his conduct that night in allowing Ken to drive the car and for giving him the business card. The Blackwells come from a family and a community of good police officers and they saw the conduct of Detective Cook as being totally unacceptable. Detective Cook and the Town of Seymour vigorously denied any responsibility for Matt’s death and said the death was only the fault of Ken, the driver.
The Blackwells agreed that Ken was responsible for Matt’s death but also believed that Detective Cook shared in that responsibility. The Blackwell family’s case was tried at the Waterbury Complex Litigation Courthouse before Judge Dennis Eveleigh along with the cases for Ken, John, and Marty. Attorney of Tremont Sheldon P.C. served as the lead attorney on behalf of all the plaintiffs and was joined in his representation by two other local firms. Attorney argued to the jury that Detective Cook had a duty, even though he was off duty, to stop Ken from driving that car when he knew Ken was intoxicated. And certainly, Detective Cook should not have assisted Ken by giving him the card. In response, Detective Cook claimed that he had no idea Ken was intoxicated and that he had given him the business card on some other occasion. By working closely with the Connecticut State Police and its troopers, Attorney was able to get a copy of a recording of a phone conversation of Bailey Cook where he admitted that he knew of Ken’s condition.
The trial took more than a month and was covered by newspapers from around Connecticut due to the unique issues involved. Finally, after four days of deliberations, the jury came down with its landmark verdict. The jury found the total damages for all four young men to be over $16 million and specifically found Detective Cook and the Town of Seymour to be responsible for over $6 million of that amount.
The verdict was unique in that it is believed to be the first jury verdict in Connecticut holding a police officer responsible for conduct while off duty. The verdict was recognized in a national magazine of jury verdicts as the most significant verdict in the entire country at that time.
“The verdict is a testament to the courage of Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell and Matt’s brother David, Jr. They were determined to see the matter through and to make law in Connecticut holding a police officer responsible, even when off duty. The accident was entirely preventable if Detective Cook had acted like any reasonable officer would have that evening. Unfortunately, it took years of legal battling and a month of trial to see that achieved,” Attorney said.