Bill would have state's attorneys take up inconclusive fatal crash investigations
It was on a warm and dry September afternoon in 2007 that a man driving his pickup truck south on Route 9 lost control, went airborne and smashed into a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction, killing the woman inside.
But because state police accident reconstruction specialists never reached a conclusion as to the cause of the crash, no driver received a ticket — much less a charge related to the death of 42-year-old Tina DeGrandi.
Now Berlin resident Joe DeGrandi, Tina’s father, is hoping House Bill No. 7129 will become law and help other victims’ families have a better chance to see someone who allegedly caused a crash prosecuted for it.
The bill, which passed the state House last week and is on the Senate calendar, would make it so any agency that investigates a fatal crash and can’t reach a conclusion must refer the case to the nearest state’s attorney, who may then ask state police to take it on.
In testimony he provided in support of the bill, Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, painted the bill as a way to ensure the state does all it can to hold drivers in such cases accountable.
“I recognize that there are times when even the best accident reconstruction specialist cannot come to a conclusion,” he wrote. “However, I believe that in those occurrences, when there is a motor vehicle collision that results in a fatality, we must go the extra mile.”
But New London-based attorney Robert Reardon, whose firm handles the civil side of many of the region’s crash-related serious injury and wrongful death cases, is worried the bill could cause further delay for claimants.
In cases where municipal departments or regional investigative teams perform the investigations, it could make sense to provide a mechanism for further review, according to testimony from the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.
The association said it would support the bill if the language would allow the state’s attorney to transfer the investigation to any police crash reconstruction team, rather than just the state police unit.
But in the case of DeGrandi and many others, when it was the state police CARS, or Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Squad, that couldn’t reach a conclusion, there isn’t a better agency within the state to which a state’s attorney could turn, Reardon said.
Reardon said he’d rather see a provision to promote greater cooperation between state police and firms like his.
When Reardon’s firm becomes involved in a case, it calls on renowned crash reconstruction specialists from across the country. Some specialize in railroad crossing crashes. Others know the ins and outs of wrecks involving pedestrians or motorcycles.
But those investigators, Reardon said, often have to look into crashes without the critical details one can find in a police report: what marks were on the roadway, where the bodies were located, how the cars were positioned.
“Because state police are shorthanded and have limited resources due to budget cuts, they frequently don’t get their reports out for as long as a year after the accident,” he said. “We have to engage in our reconstruction in a piecemeal manner.”
In one past case, Reardon said, an expert he brought on proved that a car-versus-pedestrian crash was the fault of the driver, not the pedestrian. A state police investigation had found the opposite. The two parties ultimately reached a settlement.
Recently, a specialist Reardon tapped to download and analyze black box information found a driver was going twice as fast as the driver had told police. Police had charged Reardon’s client in the case, but her charges have since been dropped.
Right now, Reardon’s firm is looking into the case of Ashley Ferguson. In December, a tractor-trailer hit and killed Ferguson on Interstate 95 in Old Lyme after she stepped out of her car to check on her child in the back seat. She was 31.
Reardon said he already has brought in one expert to reconstruct the crash scene and another to go over black box information from the tractor-trailer. But, he said, he just recently received the preliminary crash report from state police.
“If they’re unable to determine how an accident occurred, that doesn’t mean people like our firm can’t determine a cause by calling upon expertise that perhaps (state police) don’t have the means to access,” Reardon said.
An early version of a similar bill raised last year would have required agencies that couldn’t find a cause of a crash to “call for the retention of” a private investigative agency that could.
In Tina DeGrandi’s case, a private investigation did reach a conclusion about the crash. Joe DeGrandi, however, said he was told prosecutors couldn’t use that information as part of their decision-making process.
This bill doesn’t include language to transfer such probes to private investigators.
“We are more than willing to share information with the state police CARS to try to make sure that everybody is satisfied that there’s been an accurate determination,” Reardon said. “But if this bill results in a further delay because the state’s attorney now will withhold information, whether favorable or unfavorable, then that would be a disservice.”
Stories that may interest you
The city has been awarded a $2.195 million grant to bolster the ranks of the police department by covering the recruitment and hiring of six new officers.
The courts have been operating on a reduced schedule at limited locations during the coronavirus pandemic.
A man wanted out of Hopkinton, R.I., was removed from a Shore Line East train and taken into custody Wednesday afternoon in New London, police said.
Jonathan Dawson, 23, of Bridgeport died of a gunshot wound, East Lyme police Chief Michael Finkelstein said Wednesday afternoon after the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide.