Jury selection starts in civil lawsuit over wrong-way crash that killed Conn College student

Jury selection began in Hartford Superior Court Tuesday in a civil wrongful death/negligence lawsuit brought against the owners and backers of a Mohegan Sun nightclub by the survivors of a Connecticut College student who was killed in a 2009 crash and four others who were injured in the crash.

The trial is expected to begin Jan. 28 before Judge William H. Bright Jr. and last about a month.

Elizabeth Durante, a 20-year-old pre-medical student from West Islip, N.Y., was killed March 7, 2009, when the northbound van in which she and seven other students were passengers collided head-on with a car going the wrong way near Exit 79A of Interstate 395.

The driver of the car, Navy sailor Daniel Musser, had been drinking at the Ultra 88 club inside the casino and had a blood-alcohol level of 0.13. According to court testimony, he slept in his car for 90 minutes before driving the wrong way out of a parking garage and entering the highway in the wrong direction. He pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and other charges and is serving a 75-month prison sentence.

Musser, now 27, was a former altar boy who had considered becoming a priest before joining the Navy. He is expected to testify.

Durante and her classmates were en route to Logan International Airport in Boston to catch a flight to Uganda for a humanitarian mission when the crash occurred.

In Hartford Tuesday, a court clerk provided a brief description of the case to 20 prospective jurors, and attorneys for the five plaintiffs introduced themselves. Members of the jury panel are being questioned individually by the attorneys in a process known as voir dire.

New London attorneys Robert I. Reardon Jr. and Kelly E. Reardon are representing Durante’s survivors. Durante’s mother, Kathleen H. Durante, who is an attorney and is the administrator of her daughter’s estate, was in court for the first day of jury selection.

The case is being tried in Hartford as part of the court system’s complex litigation docket, because there are multiple parties involved and the subject matter is complex. The attorneys have filed dozens of pretrial motions to date.

None of the other plaintiffs — former Connecticut College students Charles Gartman, Laura Whitelaw and Jessica Gordon — were in court Tuesday. They live out of state and could not be present, according to their attorney, James Harrington. Van driver Faheem Muhammad, who lives in Waterford, is represented by Norwich attorney Bart Sayet.

The plaintiffs are suing Plan B LLC, the Lyons Group LLC, the backers and owners of Ultra 88, and permittee Patrick Lyons, claiming the nightclub recklessly served alcohol to Musser while he was intoxicated. They had initially sued Mohegan tribal officials and casino executives, but Judge Bright dismissed the tribal officers from the case because they are protected by sovereign immunity.

Attorney Dominic A. Secondo is representing the club and its backers.

The case of another student who was riding in the van that day, Jennifer Blanco, is scheduled for trial in March.

k.florin@theday.com

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