Smithtown settles suit in 2 boat ramp deaths
The out-of-court sum will be equally split between the families of Ryan Colvin, 25, and Robert Ungerer, 24, said Smithtown attorney John Zollo after yesterday's town board meeting. The lawsuits, which were filed separately but were proceeding jointly, were about two weeks from jury selection in Suffolk County Supreme Court, he said.
"We expended over $270,000 in legal fees and experts," said Zollo, who added that it made "good sense to settle the case because the potential exposure there was great."
The families had originally demanded $1.2 million each, said Shaun K. Hogan, the attorney for Colvin's family.
Colvin's father, Edward Colvin, declined to comment on the settlement. Attempts to reach Ungerer's family and attorney, James McCrorie, were not immediately successful.
Both families filed notice of wrongful death claims in June 2008, alleging that the accident occurred because of "negligent design, placement, and maintenance of a roadway and the signs . . . as well as the negligent design, placement, and maintenance" of the ramp at the end of Old Dock Road in Kings Park.
Ungerer and Colvin -- best friends since grade school and both graduates of Centereach High School -- were returning from visiting a friend during a rainstorm on March 15, 2008, when the car drove down the ramp and into the river.Although there was lighting in the area, the boat ramp continues unobstructed from the roadway. The town had been in the process of a redesign of the boat ramp area since 2000, but officials stressed in April 2008 that the revised plans were more for traffic and parking issues than safety concerns.
In an interview Tuesday, Zollo said, "Part of our defense to the case was that they were intoxicated from autopsies and toxicology reports."
But defense experts have contended that as a body decomposes, it creates ethanol, which can test positive for alcohol, Zollo said. The argument was pertinent for Ungerer, the driver whose body was not recovered for 38 days, Hogan said. "The toxicologist who was retained . . . said that because of the passage of time in which it took to get the body out of the water, the blood alcohol content reading was not reliable," Hogan said.
Talks began about a month ago, said Hogan, who advised his clients to settle because of "the emotional impact that a [three- to four-week] trial would have."
Allegations that Ungerer was intoxicated were also a factor, Hogan said. "A jury could hear the testimony . . . and be reluctant to award damages," he said.
In a 2008 Newsday interview, Ungerer's mother, Laura Mongeau, of Ronkonkoma, said Colvin became a teacher at Roosevelt Children's Academy Charter School in Roosevelt and Ungerer was an accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Manhattan. She said the town should not call the road a "dead end" when it ended at the water.
"It's unbelievable that this tragedy could have been avoided and then these two beautiful boys didn't have to lose their lives," she had said.
Hogan described Colvin as an "outstanding individual."
"He taught at a high-risk special needs school," said Hogan. "It seems like thousands of people came to the wake and the funeral."The town has since reconfigured the road and put in a planter to prevent driving to the river, Zollo said. The town has also put up more signage, Supervisor Patrick Vecchio said.