Double amputee says hit-and-run driver destroyed her dreams

Tim Cook/The Day Melissa Laribee smiles as she talks with family and supporters in front of the courthouse in New London at the conclusion of the sentencing of Amalia Rivera Friday April 4, 2014. Rivera hit Melissa Laribee with her car in October of 2012 and left the scene. The accident left Laribee a double amputee.

Twenty-one-year-old Melissa Laribee, who lost both legs after being struck by a hit-and-run driver in Norwich in October 2012, told a Superior Court judge Friday that the crash destroyed her dreams.

Laribee rolled up to the court bench in a wheelchair to address Judge Kevin P. McMahon as Amalia Rivera, 37, who had pleaded guilty to evading responsibility, a felony, was sentenced to one year in prison.

"I was an independent 20-year-old woman who had my own apartment and future plans to become a police officer," she said. "My dreams were destroyed that night when I became a double, above-the-knee amputee."

Rivera was driving home from Foxwoods Resort Casino when she swerved off the right side of Hamilton Avenue and struck Laribee and her then-boyfriend, Joseph Patch, as they were retrieving items from a parked car, according to police. Patch suffered a collapsed lung.

Though Rivera admitted she had been drinking while gambling at Foxwoods, police did not arrest her for more than three hours after the incident and did not charge her with driving under the influence.

Rivera, who came to court with family members and wore a gray sweatsuit in anticipation of her imprisonment, stood with her attorney, Theodore Kowar, and declined to make a statement.

At Laribee's request, the two women had met in prosecutor Thomas DeLillo's office while the court case was pending.

"I wanted to have a sit-down meeting with her," Laribee said. "I wanted to see her on my own. She was crying and said she has to live with this every day. I said, 'How do you think I feel?'"

Laribee, once a competitive hip-hop dancer, has prosthetic devices but says it is painful to use them. She works at Smith Insurance in Niantic and is hoping to get a car with hand controls as she strives to become independent again.

"I don't want people's help," she said. "I want to do it on my own."

Laribee has bad days like everyone else, but is remarkably strong and cheerful, according to her friend and co-worker, Monica Garrity.

"She gets up every morning," Garrity said. "She gets dressed. She puts her makeup on."

Rivera's car insurance policy had lapsed for nonpayment, so she was uninsured when the crash occurred. Laribee said she is infuriated that there is no system in place in Connecticut, where insurance is mandatory, to punish people who are driving without insurance. Her attorney, Peter J. Bartinik Jr., said Laribee will receive a $250,000 settlement, the most available under Foxwoods' dram shop act, but that most of it will be paid directly to the state for medical bills. Bartinik said the Mashantucket Pequots, owners of Foxwoods, agreed to the settlement even though Rivera was not charged with drunken driving.

Judge McMahon said Laribee had suffered one of the most life-altering injuries he has ever seen. He agreed that there should be a stiffer penalty for uninsured drivers and that insurance could perhaps be made more affordable for people who have no means to pay. Uninsured drivers are subject to court fines of at least $100 and may also be subjected to a $200 fee from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Her failure to call 911 or provide any assistance to me whatsoever after hearing my cries for help as I lay broken and mangled on the side of the road shows me that she lacks a substantial amount of personal responsibility," Laribee said in her statement to the court.

Following the Oct. 12, 2012, crash, police recovered a headlight assembly, which had the Chrysler logo. Police checked the area and found a Chrysler 300 with what appeared to be fresh front-end damage at Rivera's home at 40 Donohue Drive.

Rivera told the police she thought she had struck an animal but could not remember the accident and had left the scene because she wanted to go home. She said she didn't drink often and that even small amounts of alcohol affect her.

k.florin@theday.com

To help

The Melissa Laribee Fund has been established at Rockville Bank. Donations can be sent to: 99 Linwood Ave., Colchester, CT 06415.

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