SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 22, 2013

Trolley crash trial begins

BY TOM DALTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — A lot was going right for Samantha Mattei on May 8, 2009.

The 19-year-old from Salem had just finished her freshman year at Merrimack College, where she was an excellent student with a passion for chemistry. After final exams, she and a college friend headed into Boston that Friday evening to attend a concert at The House of Blues.

On the way to Kenmore Square, a Green Line trolley operated by a T driver who was texting his girlfriend slammed into a stationary subway car, sending Mattei flying head-first into a metal pole, causing a deep gash in her head and sending her in and out of consciousness, according to a witness.

That moment in time — sometime around 7 p.m. — resulted in permanent brain damage to Mattei, fractured her back and changed her life forever, her attorney told jurors yesterday in Lawrence Superior Court on the opening day of a high-stakes civil case stemming from an accident that sent dozens to the hospital and got wide media coverage.

The subway crash is the cause of a seizure disorder and other ongoing medical problems, making it impossible for Mattei to live on her own, walk without a cane most of the time, drive a car or lead a normal life, the lawyer said.

The accident “extinguished her dream of becoming a college graduate and a research chemist,” said attorney Paul Mitchell, who, as he spoke, showed the jury pictures on a large screen of a mangled subway car and an injured Mattei.

He also played a video of TV interviews with Mattei right after the accident in which she appeared groggy and had difficulty speaking.

A lawyer for the MBTA told a far different story.

Attorney John Bonistalli said medical experts will testify that her injuries are not as significant as she alleges and that many of the ongoing problems stem not from the accident, but from anxiety and other issues she has battled since childhood. Some of Mattei’s own medical experts did not have this prior knowledge when they made their evaluations, he said.

“They didn’t know anything about Miss Mattei’s past history with respect to psychological issues,” Bonistalli said.

With regard to the seizures, Bonistalli said he will provide evidence of a dozen fainting spells she had before the accident, both as a youth and in college.

His medical experts will testify that the reported seizures stem from a “behavioral condition ... not epilepsy,” Bonistalli said.

For both sides, this is a high-stakes case.

Mitchell told the jury they will be seeking at least $9 million for care, medical expenses and lost earnings. He suggested the damages could be even higher when quality-of-life issues are considered.

Mattei “will need care, support and supervision for the remainder of her life,” he said.

According to a case summary in online court files, at a hearing last summer one expert for Mattei testified that damages could be as much as $20 million.

Last year, a jury awarded a Scituate woman $1.2 million in the first civil case from the accident to go to trial. Colleen Fyffe said she was unable to return to work as a Delta Air Lines ticket and gate agent. She had rejected a $100,000 settlement, her lawyer said.

The T said it planned to appeal.

A total of 24 lawsuits had been filed at that time, nine of which had been settled for an average of $31,000, the T said last year.

Asked yesterday for an update on those figures, spokesman Joe Pesaturo replied in an email that “because damages are the primary focus of the current trial, the MBTA will not be discussing previous settlements at this time.”

The MBTA and the driver have admitted liability in the accident. In 2010, Aiden Quinn, the driver, pleaded guilty to negligence and was sentenced to two years of probation and 100 hours of community service.

This trial, which is expected to last three weeks, is being held to determine the extent of the injuries and the amount of damages.

Mattei, who is on the witness list, did not attend the first day of trial. Her parents were the lone spectators in a first-floor courtroom.

Tom Dalton can be reached at tdalton@salemnews.com.