Jury awards $3M to survivors of victim in overdose incident

A New London jury has awarded nearly $3 million to the survivors of a woman who overdosed on cocaine at an illegal after-hours party at the former Club Hipnotic in downtown New London.

Mechelle Rutka, 25, of Salem, died July 23, 2006, at the Golden Street bar. Her estate had brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the club owners and employees. The jury awarded $5.98 million, but the amount will be reduced in half because the panel found that Rutka was 50 percent responsible for the incident.

Attorneys Ralph J. Monaco and Patrick J. Day, who represented Rutka's estate, said in a prepared statement that this was "a terrible tragedy that could have been avoided."

"We are pleased that the truth could be brought out in a court of law and justice prevail," the statement said.

Rutka's father could not be reached for comment.

Evidence was presented at the trial that the club manager, John Green, and the bar owner, Kenneth McNeil, provided Rutka with cocaine, and that after she began having seizures, Green and bouncer Miguel Hernandez delayed calling 911 and dragged her outside. They then concocted a story that they found her body while taking out the trash, according to the estate's attorneys. In its verdict, the jury found that Green's conduct was reckless and "highly unreasonable, involving an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger was apparent."

Dr. Mark Bayer from the University of Connecticut Medical Center testified that Rutka could have been saved if she had received medical care sooner. Records showed emergency personnel arrived at the scene within one minute of the 7 a.m. call.

The evidence showed the owner, manager and bouncer all were under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the party, according to the attorneys. McNeil was not present when Rutka overdosed.

The club owner, manager and employees also were charged criminally.

Green, the manager, pleaded no contest to tampering with evidence, a felony, and to the misdemeanor crimes of cruelty to persons and falsely reporting an incident. He received a suspended prison sentence and probation.

McNeil, the owner, pleaded no contest to the illegal sale of alcohol and received a suspended sentence and probation. His wife, Jessica McNeil, was charged with providing a false statement. The Judicial Branch has no record of a conviction, which could be an indication she was granted a pre-trial diversionary program.

Miguel Hernandez, the bouncer, pleaded guilty to making a false statement and also received probation.

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