Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon mayor settles complaint over bungled lawsuit

By Alex Wood
Journal Inquirer
Published: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 11:46 AM EDT

Vernon Mayor Jason L. McCoy says he has completed two continuing legal education courses that he was required to take as a result of a grievance filed by a former client of his Vernon law office, whose medical malpractice case was dismissed after lawyers in McCoy’s office missed a deadline.

McCoy was required to take the courses, on legal ethics and time management, under an agreement he made with the state disciplinary counsel’s office to settle the grievance case. A three-member subcommittee of the Statewide Grievance Committee approved the agreement in September.

McCoy says he regularly takes continuing legal education courses on his own, adding that one of the courses he took as a result of the grievance has been “helpful in all aspects of my life.”

McCoy’s former client, Roberta L. Colon, who has listed Vernon addresses, was an inmate at the York Correctional Institution in the Niantic section of East Lyme when she developed severe vomiting and abdominal pain on Sept. 24, 2003.

A medical expert hired several years later by McCoy’s office said her documented symptoms were consistent with a small bowel obstruction, which he described as a surgical emergency. But it took more than two days for the Correction Department’s medical staff to have her taken to the emergency department of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

The expert, Dr. Ronald G. Clark, submitted a preliminary medical opinion to McCoy’s office in January 2006, which is now part of the file on the grievance against McCoy at the Statewide Grievance Committee’s offices in East Hartford.

Clark said the obstruction “had the potential for severe complications including bowel perforation.” But he added, “Despite the delay in securing the appropriate surgical intervention, this patient did not sustain any medically documented surgical complications.”

As a result, Clark said, “a claim of medical malpractice would be unsuccessful because no direct damage was caused by the medical care the patient received.”

But the issue wasn’t quite that black-and-white. McCoy acknowledged in a letter to state grievance authorities that there was a possibility that Colon could recover damages for “one hour to 48 hours of extended discomfort and pain.”

On the other hand, the state would have been in a position to collect the costs of Colon’s incarceration from any money she won in the malpractice case, McCoy said. In addition, he said, she had filed for bankruptcy in 2003 and “any potential recovery might need to be turned over to the bankruptcy trustee.”

McCoy said he and lawyer Ann E. Griffin, an associate in his office, explained to Colon that “it would be likely that any potential recovery would be very low.”

Because the Correction Department is a state agency, protected from lawsuits by the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” McCoy’s office had to get approval from the state claims commissioner before it could file suit.

It received that approval on June 29, 2006. But the suit wasn’t actually filed until November 2007.

The state attorney general’s office later filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that it had been filed too late.

Judge Dennis G. Eveleigh, who presided over the case on the “complex litigation” docket in Waterbury Superior Court, granted the state’s motion, saying that state law gives plaintiffs only a year to file a lawsuit against the state after receiving the claims commissioner’s approval.

McCoy suggested in his letter to grievance authorities that the reason for the missed deadline was turnover among the lawyers in his firm. Griffin, who initially handled the case, got married in 2007 and left to practice law in Massachusetts, McCoy said.

He said that he assigned another associate, Clayton Miller, to handle Griffin’s cases and that Miller told him “he had put the case in suit and he was handling it, along with others. Apparently he did not.”

McCoy said Miller quit the firm in March 2007, at a time when McCoy was in the middle of two trials. McCoy added that he had several trials through November 2007.

He said that he hired lawyer Stephen J. Nardine in the middle of July 2007 and that they discovered within a month or two that the Colon lawsuit hadn’t been filed.

But internal records of McCoy’s office on file with the grievance committee suggest that there was a problem beyond a legal associate dropping the ball. Notations in the office files suggest that both Griffin and Miller believed they had two years to file the lawsuit after the claims commissioner granted approval, which proved to be a crucial error.

After the dismissal of the case, McCoy said, he met with Colon, apologized for the mistake, and said he would turn the claim over to his malpractice-insurance carrier if she wanted to bring a claim against him. He said Tuesday that she has filed no such claim.

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