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'Jo-Jo' Wright's family files $150 million lawsuit

Uniondale freshman "Jo-Jo" Wright during a game against

Uniondale freshman "Jo-Jo" Wright during a game against Massapequa at Uniondale High School in December 2019. Credit: James Escher

The family of late Uniondale High School basketball star Jomani "Jo-Jo" Wright filed a $150 million wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against the Town of Hempstead and four others, arguing the 15-year-old’s death in a January crash was caused by a failure to fix dangerous road conditions in a community of color.

The suit, filed in Nassau County Supreme Court, names the town and the owner or operator of three other vehicles involved in the Jan. 27 crash in Uniondale that claimed the life of the sophomore point guard, who had emerged as the county's top public school basketball player.

Among the lawyers representing the Wright family is Benjamin Crump, the renowned civil rights attorney who has represented the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

"This dangerous, defective death trap at Front Street and Maple Avenue … was known by everybody," Crump said at a news conference Wednesday at the site of the crash. "It was foreseeable that if something wasn't done about it someone was going to get seriously hurt. Somebody was going to get killed. It was foreseeable. The Town of Hempstead had notice."

Wright died after the Honda CR-V in which he was a rear-seat passenger hit a pole after a collision with a Toyota, police said.

Wright family attorney Heather Palmore said majority-Black communities such as Uniondale have been neglected with regard to infrastructure dollars for decades while money has been over-resourced in white neighborhoods.

A stop sign at one corner of the intersection was erected only two months ago, Palamore said, while Front and Maple — where cars drive at speeds of more than 50 miles per hour — has no stop light.

The wooden LIPA pole that was involved in the crash has yet to be removed or replaced, despite heavy damage at the base.

"You are at the most dangerous intersection in the town," said Palmore, who said the site has been the scene of multiple crashes in the years before Wright's death and in the months since. "Uniondale is only one of hundreds of thousands of communities of color that have not been properly resourced."

Hempstead spokesman Greg Blower said, "the town does not comment on ongoing litigation."

Dozens of Wright's family, friends and teammates attended Wednesday's news conference, chanting "Justice for Jo-Jo" and wearing sweatshirts and masks bearing the student-athlete's image.

They recalled Wright as a gifted leader who was equally proficient on the hardwood and in the classroom, as respectful with his peers as he was talented on the court.

Uniondale varsity basketball coach Tom Diana said Wright was driven to attend a Division I college basketball program and eventually make it in the NBA.

"While most players have similar dreams, JoJo understood the difference between dreaming and goal setting," Diana said. "We often talked about dreams being free but goals requiring a relentless work ethic to achieve. Jo-Jo took that notion of hard work and commitment and was dogged in his pursuit of excellence."

Jo-Jo's father, Joseph Wright, said his son was a loving and compassionate young man so determined to succeed that he would do 300 pushups each night to compete with older players.

But he said Jo-Jo's death could have been avoided had the town properly maintained the intersection the way roads in largely white neighborhoods are cared for.

"How hard would it be to put a stop sign up at a corner?" Joseph Wright asked. "No power needed. No digging in the ground needed. … Then my baby would still be here. I'd get to watch him flourish. Now I lost my baby. An unimaginable pain is now my family’s reality."

The suit, which asks for $150 million in damages, also names as defendants the owners or operators of the two vehicles involved in the crash, along with a third that was parked at the scene and was hit by the other cars.

The Nassau District Attorney's Office said the crash was "thoroughly investigated" and no criminal charges are being pursued.

Crump said one way to honor Wright's legacy is for funds in the federal infrastructure bill, recently signed into law by President Joe Biden, to be spent first in Uniondale and other communities of color.

"If those infrastructure dollars come to Nassau County and don’t make it to the Black community, then that's like you are unjustly killing Jo-Jo Wright again," Crump said. "Because everything should be about his legacy for this community."

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