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Bike Crash Case Has Lessons For Reluctant Lawyers

Connecticut Law Tribune

June 28, 2010

It was bad enough that Peter Serratore sustained life-changing injuries in a bicycle accident six years ago. Complicating his problem was the fact that his mishap was caused by a highway defect.

“Most personal injury lawyers will simply not take this kind of case,” said Serratore’s attorney, Shipman & Goodwin’s James Bergenn.

Unlike other negligence cases, the state’s highway defect statute bars recovery unless the plaintiff can show the state-caused defect was the “sole proximate cause” of the accident. Such cases are widely viewed as futile. If the defense can prove the plaintiff or anyone else was significantly at fault, “that contributory negligence is always lurking like a monster,” Bergenn said. “And it can devour you at any time.”

A seasoned criminal defender and civil trial lawyer, Bergenn has been teaching trial practice to other lawyers for decades, and is currently handling several bicycle accident cases for plaintiffs. The Serratore case, he said, has several useful lessons about highway defect cases. The first is, “Don’t say no too quickly.”

Serratore was an editor of Off Shore, a leisure magazine, and a biking enthusiast. He and his wife, Anne, were out riding on state Route 136 in their hometown of Fairfield on July 4, 2004. The couple struck up a conversation with two other cyclists – Bridgeport Hospital anesthesiologist Michael Packman and his 17-year-old son, Daniel.

The men rode in front, Serratore taking the lead. At one point he gave a hand signal, warning Packman of an upcoming hazard. There was a small dip in the road, seemingly nothing serious, and they didn’t even slow down.

Suddenly, Serratore’s front tire was grabbed as if by a vise, and he catapulted over the handlebars, snapping his neck on impact. Serratore was in a coma for weeks, and his medical recovery was slow and incomplete. He had suffered such serious brain injury that he would require 24-hour nursing care, at more than $100,000 annually. He was 56 when the injury occurred and, before the accident, had a nearly 30-year life expectancy.

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