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Jury: Islip owes woman $14.5M for sign post injuries

A jury awarded Carolyn McNeill, left, with her

A jury awarded Carolyn McNeill, left, with her mother, Cora McNeill, on Monday, July 31, 2017, $14.5 million for injuries suffered in 2007 when an Islip sign post fell on her, causing permanent brain damage. Credit: Steve Pfost

A Suffolk jury has found the Town of Islip negligent in awarding more than $14 million to a pedestrian who suffered permanent brain damage after an aging street sign post at a Brentwood intersection fell and struck her on the head in 2007.

The six-member jury found that in more than 40 years, Islip did not inspect or maintain the 10-foot-6-inch post to see whether rust or decay may have compromised its structural integrity, according to attorneys representing the pedestrian, Carolyn McNeill, of Central Islip.

In a unanimous decision, the jury ordered the town to pay nearly $14.5 million in damages to McNeill, who is confined to a wheelchair and needs round-the-clock care.

McNeill’s mother, Cora McNeill, 77, of Bay Shore, blamed Islip Town officials and employees for destroying her daughter’s life.

Cora McNeill said Monday that her daughter, now 54, and a former home health aide, depends on others for basic needs like bathing and using the bathroom and can no longer take part in activities that brought joy to her life.

“We cooked together. We played together; having fun together,” Cora McNeill said. “I miss all of that now. I have to deal with what’s left.”

The judgement nearly equals the Town of Islip’s MacArthur Airport operating budget of $14.6 million.

“The verdict was powerful, fair, just and most importantly, it sent a message to all towns across Long Island that they must maintain their infrastructure for the safety of the public,” said attorney Michael Della last week. Della’s Ronkonkoma-based firm represented McNeill.

Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter, through a spokeswoman, declined several requests for comment on the verdict, reached May 31. Carpenter would not answer written questions, including whether the town will set a schedule to inspect and maintain street sign posts within its borders.

In an email Wednesday, town spokeswoman Carolyn Smith said Islip “intends on pursuing all available post-trial remedies, including an appeal if necessary, as the verdict is inconsistent with the evidence presented at trial.”

On June 29, 2007, McNeill was walking in Islip on 5th Avenue at Fairtown Road when the steel post at the southeast corner fell and knocked her to the ground, Glenn Auletta, one of the woman’s lawyers, said in an interview this week. An ambulance drove the dazed and disoriented McNeill to Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, where she was treated and released, Auletta said.

Two days later, Auletta said, McNeill returned to the hospital as instructed because vomiting and dizziness persisted. In subsequent exams, doctors discovered McNeill had three brain aneurysms. During surgery, one of McNeill’s aneurysms ruptured, causing a stroke and leading to irreparable brain damage, Auletta said, adding that she underwent five additional surgeries.

During the trial, which took place in Riverhead before Acting State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti, Peter Kletchka, Islip Town’s public works project supervisor, testified the town had no duty to inspect or maintain street sign posts within its borders, according to a court transcript. He said the town repaired or replaced the posts when someone — such as a resident or a police officer — called to alert the town.

“Therefore, you have no schedule for replacement for these 41-year-old poles as well,” Auletta said to Kletchka in court, according to the transcript. “Isn’t that also true?”

“That’s correct,” Kletchka replied.

Kletchka also testified that he did not know the life span of the steel posts but acknowledged, when questioned by Auletta, that the posts can deteriorate over 40 years due the elements.

Islip’s website shows that the traffic safety division oversees the maintenance and repair of “street name signs.” The policy has been in effect since the 1970s, Smith said.

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