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Suffolk loses bus, truck court decisions, potentially costing the county millions

The Suffolk County Legislature seal in the lobby

The Suffolk County Legislature seal in the lobby of the legislature building in Hauppauge, seen on Aug. 14, 2012. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Suffolk County has lost two $1 million-plus state Supreme Court lawsuits in separate county bus and parks department truck accidents.

The details of the jury verdicts came to light in the county's prospectus for a $75 million bond refinancing.

One case involved Jason Kowalsky, a pedestrian working for Verizon Telecom. He was hit June 12, 2009, by a county parks truck just outside of Cathedral Pines Park on the shoulder of County Road 21 in Middle Island. Kowalsky's suit claimed he was "violently struck" by the truck, whose driver, a county worker, was "inattentive" and "exercised poor judgment."

State Supreme Court Justice Jerry Garguilo issued a summary judgment against the county on liability in the accident. In August the jury awarded $5.088 million to Kowalsky, who underwent back surgery and was totally disabled by the accident.

The county made a motion asking the judge to set aside the verdict and Garguilo, in a decision released Tuesday, reduced the award to $1.3 million, according to County Attorney Dennis Brown. He said the county has not decided whether to appeal the latest ruling.

Joel Robinson, Kowalsky's attorney, said he was surprised by Garguilo's ruling, noting he referred to an appellate ruling in a case that dealt only with issues of pain and suffering, while his client suffered economic losses because the accident affected his livelihood. He said no decision has been made over a further appeal, but even at the reduced award, the county will have to pay about $250,000 in interest.

The other case involved Jenna Vatalaro, 19, of Bayport, who died after being hit on May 21, 2007. The county bus was traveling east on Montauk Highway in midafternoon in Blue Point. The young woman, driving a Land Rover SUV, was making a left-hand turn onto Montauk Highway from Atlantic Avenue. She was pronounced dead at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in East Patchogue. Vatalaro family attorneys said the accident occurred because of the county's "negligence, recklessness and carelessness."

The jury issued an award of $1.67 million in Vatalaro's death. The county is appealing and awaiting a ruling. Vatalaro family attorney Joel Schmelkin said he would reserve comment until the appeal is complete.

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