Jury Ignores Cocaine Defense in $6.4 M Accident Verdict

The Connecticut Law Tribune
Robert Storace
May 18, 2017

The family of a 52-year-old bicyclist killed when he was struck by a van was awarded $6.4 million despite attempts by the defense to mitigate damages by claiming the victim used cocaine.

A New Haven Superior Court jury sided with the family of Jeffrey Harrison after deliberating for three and a half hours Wednesday morning. The key issue was whether cocaine allegedly used the night before was a factor in the accident.

Cheryle Tyson, driving a van for her employer, Sarah Inc., was originally charged with negligent homicide after hitting Harrison. That charge was pleaded down to an infraction for driving in the improper lane, according to Timothy P. Pothin, the attorney for Harrison's widow, Marion Harrison. An amended lawsuit was filed April 20.

Autopsy reports showed Harrison had cocaine and methadone in his blood. With those findings in hand, Superior Court Judge Matthew Frechette allowed the defense to explore the possibility that the drugs contributed to Harrison's death.

"They put the family through the trauma of a trial and did everything possible to denigrate the victim and belittle his life," said Pothin, a partner with Faxon Law Group in New Haven. Pothin said Harrison was unemployed and had a history of substance abuse.

Tyson's attorney, Paul Meade of Halloran & Sage, was not available for comment.

Experts called by both sides offered different scenarios for how long cocaine can potentially impair someone riding a bicycle. Harrison likely ingested the cocaine the night before the accident, Pothin said. The accident occurred the following day at 11:49 a.m.

Pothin's expert, Dr. Robert Powers, a professor at the University of New Haven and a former chief toxicologist at the State Police Crime Lab, testified that the euphoric effects of cocaine last about 90 minutes. "Our expert is a distinguished toxicologist and blew their expert out of the water," Pothin said.

Marion Harrison and the couple's 19-year-old daughter, Katherine, testified during the trial. "It was emotionally traumatic for both of them to relive this horrific event over and over again," Pothin said.

Tyson also testified.

"It was very unusual in the fact that she asserted her Fifth Amendment privileges against self-incrimination every time I asked her a question," Pothin said. "Anything that had to do with the facts and circumstances of the case and her attorney had her assert the Fifth."

The jury awarded $6 million for noneconomic damages and the rest for economic damages. An appeal is likely, Pothin said.

Selective Insurance Group, the New Jersey-based insurance carrier for Sarah Inc., offered $500,000 to settle before trial and then upped it to $800,000 during trial, Pothin said. "We rejected both offers," he said.

Selective Insurance was represented by Shane Mathieu, an associate with Esty & Buckmir in Hamden. Mathieu was not available for comment.

Associate attorney Brittany S. Cates assisted Pothin.

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