NEW HAVEN — The town of East Haven, plagued by improprieties within the police department and still stinging from the conviction of four officers for civil rights violations, was dealt another blow on Wednesday when a Superior Court jury handed up a $12.2 million verdict against the town in a liability lawsuit.
The complaint was brought against the town and now former police Officer Jeffrey Strand by West Haven resident Thomas Ventura, who claimed that Strand let an intoxicated driver go free because of the driver’s close relationship with some East Haven police officers.
The driver later struck Ventura with his vehicle, causing “severe and painful injuries,” the complaint alleged.
The lawsuit claimed that the town was liable for Strand’s negligent actions, and therefore for Ventura’s medical bills and financial loss due to the injuries he sustained in the accident.
“Anyone else would have been arrested,” Ventura’s attorney Michael A. Stratton said.
Hugh Keefe, attorney for the town of East Haven, said that he plans to file a motion to set aside the verdict. Keefe said there was not enough evidence provided by the plaintiff to justify the decision.
East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo, Jr. did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Although the initial complaint in this case names Strand among the defendants, the town of East Haven was the only defendant named at trial.
According to the complaint, Strand responded to the parking lot of McDonald’s at 687 Main St. in East Haven on Nov. 4, 2006, on a report of a dispute inside a cargo van in the lot. Strand determined that the operator of the van, Vladimir Trnka, was “highly agitated and unlicensed,” the complaint states. The vehicle’s license plates belonged to another vehicle, and Trnka was not carrying insurance, according to the complaint.
Strand asked Trnka to park the van and drove Trnka to his home a few miles away but did not confiscate the keys to the vehicle or ensure that it was impounded, according to the complaint.
Trnka then went back to the McDonald’s parking lot, picked up the van and continued driving. He then struck Ventura, who was attempting to enter his own vehicle on Townsend Avenue, the complaint states.
Court records indicate that Trnka was arrested the day after the accident. He was found guilty of evading responsibility and third-degree assault in January 2008, after pleading no contest, and sentenced to 10 years in prison, suspended after 23 months.
Trnka was never convicted of operating under the influence, but Ventura’s lawyers claim that he was intoxicated at the time of the accident.
Ventura’s lawyers also claim that 911 tapes showing the close relationship between Trnka and the East Haven police officers were suppressed by the town and its attorneys prior to being obtained by the plaintiff during the trial, which lasted a week and a half.
Keefe said the dispatch tapes were submitted into evidence at the trial with everything else.
This is not the first complaint brought against Strand, according to court records. In May 2012, a Superior Court jury returned a $25,000 verdict against him in a lawsuit brought by a man claiming that Strand and other officers brutally beat him after his arrest, violating his Fourth Amendment rights.