Wrongful death trial in I-395 crash begins
Connecticut College junior Elizabeth Durante packed her suitcase with hospital scrubs, latex gloves and a stethoscope during the late evening hours of March 6, 2009, and arranged for an airport van to take her and a group of friends to Logan Airport in Boston.
The 20-year-old aspiring doctor had recruited a group of friends for a humanitarian mission — her third such trip — to help sick kids in Uganda during spring break.
Around midnight, Durante said goodbye over the phone to her parents, Keith and Kathleen Durante, a Long Island surgeon and attorney, respectively, from Islip, N.Y.
Around the same time, Navy sailor Daniel Musser, celebrating his 24th birthday at Mohegan Sun with a couple of buddies, was ordering a Long Island Iced Tea — a potent mixed drink containing several kinds of alcohol — from the Sky Bar inside the Ultra 88 nightclub. He had been drinking since about 9:30 p.m.
On the first day of a wrongful death trial brought by Durante’s parents against the shareholders and permittee of the Ultra 88 nightclub, attorney Robert I. Reardon asserted in his opening statement that nightclub staff pushed alcoholic drinks on Musser, then threw him out of the club after he became obnoxiously drunk. In addition to the mixed drinks, Musser had beer and shots of tequila and vodka at the nightclub, Reardon said.
Musser slept in his car in a casino parking garage for about an hour, then mistakenly drove out the garage’s entrance ramp and got onto Interstate 395 in the wrong direction. His car collided head-on with the van Durante and her friends were on to catch their early-morning flight. Durante died at the scene, and several others were injured.
Durante’s parents, three other Connecticut College students and the van driver sued the nightclub’s owners and backers. All of the plaintiffs except the Durantes settled their cases for undisclosed sums during jury selection. The amount sought by the Durantes has not been disclosed, though Reardon told the jury he would call an expert who would testify that Durante would have earned $4 million to $5 million in her lifetime.
He is expected to ask the jury to award the Durantes economic damages, such as the lost income, and non-economic damages, such as compensation for their pain and suffering with the loss of their daughter’s life.
Reardon introduced Durante’s parents and said he and attorney Kelly E. Reardon would be calling witnesses and displaying video surveillance photographs obtained via court orders to show the nightclub was recklessly negligent. Reardon said as Musser became “drunker and drunker,” the staff at Ultra 88 failed to “cut him off,” and called security to throw him out of the club without trying to sober him up, offer him a ride home or get him a room in the Mohegan Sun Hotel.
Scott Behman, attorney for the Boston-based Plan B LLC, the Lyons group and nightclub permittee Patrick Lyons, said there will not be “one shred of evidence” showing that the nightclub acted negligently or recklessly. Holding up a photograph of a smiling Musser that he said was taken moments before he left Ultra 88, Behman said Musser appeared “stone sober.”
Reardon’s first witness was Patrick Lyons, the managing shareholder of the casino nightclubs known as Mohegan After Dark and the person whose name appears on the state liquor permit. As Reardon recited the nightclub’s alcohol and security policies, Lyons, whose office is in Boston, admitted he did not write the policies and that he relies on his management staff, including General Manager Todd Main, for day-to-day operations of the clubs.
Reardon, citing Connecticut’s liquor control regulations, asked Lyons if he understood that as the permittee, he is “strictly accountable” for what goes on at the club.
“Ultimately, yes,” Lyons responded. “I’m an investor in this project, not a micromanager. We as a group set out to hire the best and brightest management team.”
Bartender Sarah Webster, who has worked at Ultra 88 since 2004, was testifying when the trial broke for the day. Reardon is expected to call on other nightclub staff when testimony resumes today. Musser, who is serving a 75-month prison sentence for second-degree manslaughter, is expected to testify later this week.
Judge William H. Bright Jr. is presiding over the case, which was removed from New London Superior Court to the complex litigation docket in Hartford Superior Court.