Attorney General George Jepsen CTMIRROR.ORG
Attorney General George Jepsen
Attorney General George Jepsen CTMIRROR.ORG

Eight plaintiffs, including the children of a couple killed eight years ago by a falling tree on the Merritt Parkway, were told Monday their claims against Connecticut are in a legal limbo as the result of procedural errors by Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr.

The office of Attorney General George Jepsen says there are at least 80 cases in which Vance Jr. failed to act within a two-year statutory deadline, delaying claimants their day in court or ability to petition the General Assembly.

Jepsen’s office notified the Superior Court on Monday that eight cases are improperly before the court, because Vance granted permission to sue after the passage of the two-year deadline when he no longer had jurisdiction.

The cases, the attorney general’s office said in nearly identical filings, all have fallen “under this same jurisdictional cloud of uncertainty.”

In all eight cases, the attorney general’s office asked the court to delay further action until no later than May 4, 2016, giving the legislature an opportunity resolve their status with special legislation in the regular session of the General Assembly.

Vance’s office has the authority to settle claims against the state for damages of up to $20,000. For larger claims, he can grant a right to sue or recommend a damage award to the legislature. For Vance to consider a claim for more than two years, he must obtain a waiver from the claimant.

In about 80 cases, the two-year period passed without a waiver, and in another 45 cases, extensions have expired without renewed waivers, said a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.

Vance, who has been commissioner since 2011, said no claimant has lost the ability to have their claim adjudicated, but he conceded failing to obtain timely waivers and to inform the General Assembly of all cases more than two years old. Waivers have since been obtained in many cases, he said.

The first public inkling of a problem came a year ago when Robert Reardon, a lawyer representing an estate in a wrongful death claim against the Department of Children and Families, asked a judge to order Vance to act on his claim.

“Attorney Reardon raised some important issues,” Vance said.

Vance said his office is making the transition to an electronic case-management system.

“We’re going to make sure that no claimant is prejudiced when they have a right to a hearing We’ll do it in a timely manner. We’re updating procedures when claims are taken in,” Vance said.

Vance said he was appointed in August 2011 to an office whose only other full-time staff, an experienced paralegal who also was the office manager, retired two months after his arrival.

The eight cases affected by the Monday filings range from common slip-and-fall cases, including a complaint filed by a prisoner who fell in a court stairwell while shackled, to the double fatality on the Merritt and a voyeurism complaint at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison.

Joseph Stavola and his wife, Jeanne Serocke, were killed on the Merritt, a historic state highway lined by trees, on June 9, 2007, when a 70-foot white pine growing 35 feet from the roadway fell. Their two sons were seated in the back seat.

Their estate claims that the state Department of Transportation was negligent: The tree showed significant damage from a limb that previously fell, taking one-third of the trunk, and was leaning toward the parkway at an angle of at least 20 degrees.

Another of the eight claims was filed by Kim Smith, a mother who discovered that two employees of Hammonasset had watched her and and her children showering through a hole in the shower wall on July 23, 2011.

Under the common law principle of sovereign immunity, the state generally cannot be sued without the permission of the General Assembly.

Jepsen declined to comment Monday, but a spokeswoman, Jaclyn M. Falkowski, said the office is continuing to assess the extent of the issues raised by the commissioner’s procedural errors.

“We have identified 80 matters still reflected as pending in the claims commissioner’s records in which stipulations were not timely received — that is, stipulations were received more than two years after the claims were filed,” she said. “We believe those untimely stipulations are ineffective to maintain the claims commissioner’s authority over the matters, and they should have been reported to the legislature in accordance with its statutorily prescribed process.

“In addition, we have identified 45 matters in which stipulations may have been timely received, but were limited to discrete time periods that have since elapsed without subsequent stipulations being received. These numbers are approximate and may increase, as we are still trying to develop a firm understanding of the full universe of affected cases.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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