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Dealer Cleared in Red Wings Limousine Crash Lawsuit

Posted on May 28, 2008 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

DETROIT – A federal jury in Detroit rejected a $290-million damages claim by the wives of former Red Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov against an Ohio car dealership after a career-ending 1997 limousine crash.

"It's a commonsense verdict," dealership attorney James Feeney said after a U.S. District Court jury rendered its 6-1 verdict in favor of Findlay Ford Lincoln Mercury following a 15-day trial and 90 minutes of deliberation. "I feel very badly for the families of the plaintiffs, but the evidence was overwhelming that Findlay Ford had no responsibility for this tragedy," Feeney said. He said a verdict against the company probably would have put the Findlay, Ohio, dealership out of business.

Richard Goodman, the lawyer for Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov, said he was disappointed. He had asked the jury to award the men damages as a result of the crash that left the men permanently disabled.

"I think this is a product of a lot of propaganda in the media and elsewhere against people who bring lawsuits," Goodman said, adding that many jurors feel people who file lawsuits are undeserving.

Jurors said the facts did not show that the dealership was to blame.

"It came down to the fact the Findlay Ford used reasonable care in checking over the car before it left their dealership," said jury forewoman Julie Toggweiler, a 40-year-old printing company employee from Warren. "At that point, the plaintiffs didn't have a case."

The lone holdout, Michael Bambach, 27, a Rochester Hills carpenter, said he felt the dealership should have been held responsible.

Konstantinov's wife, Irina, sat in the gallery with a blank look on her face when the verdict was announced.

Before trial, the dealership had offered Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov $4 million to settle, according to people familiar with the case. They said the settlement figure rose to $6 million during the trial, but was rejected.

During closing arguments, Goodman blamed the injuries on the car dealership for failing to ensure that a now-defunct Michigan limousine conversion company left the belts on the seats, instead of underneath them, so that passengers could use them. He said the dealership failed to correct the problem before delivering the 1995 Lincoln Town Car.

Goodman asked for $75 million to $100 million for each man for pain and suffering from the crash, plus lost wages of $88.8 million for Konstantinov, and $2.29 million for Mnatsakanov.

"They're both horribly injured," Goodman told the jury, adding that they will spend the rest of their lives in "a living hell" because of what happened. The men's medical care is being paid for under Michigan's no-fault automotive insurance.

But Feeney told jurors it's unfair to blame the dealership. He blamed earlier passengers for stuffing the belts under the seats, the driver and his limousine company for failing to pull them out before each trip and the players for not insisting that seat belts were available.

The main culprits, he said, were Gambino's Limousine Company of Belleville and driver Richard Gnida, who fell asleep at the wheel on the way back from a Red Wings golf outing six days after the team won its first Stanley Cup in 42 years. The car drifted across three lanes of northbound Woodward in Birmingham, jumped the median and slammed into a tree. Gnida had a poor driving record.

Feeney said trial evidence showed that others had used the limo's seat belts before the fateful trip and that Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov were "habitual seat belt users," who should have demanded to know where the seat belts were before Gnida left the golf outing.

"Had they worn them, we wouldn't be here," Feeney said. Before making his closing argument, Goodman asked U.S. District Judge George Steeh to dismiss a female juror for exhibiting hostile behavior toward him and his legal team. He said she had mouthed words at his team such as "shut up."

Feeney said it was a bit late to be trying to disqualify a juror, and Steeh said everyone was understandably frustrated because the trial had taken four weeks.

Source: Detroit Free Press

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