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Six years after fatal Greenport crash, civil case continues on

In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 crash that killed him, Bartolone Miguel told the driver of the vehicle he was in that he didn’t feel well.

Oseas Ramirez, a housemate and distant cousin of Mr. Miguel, recalled the exchange in a 2019 deposition.

“I don’t feel my legs,” the 34-year-old vineyard farmhand told Mr. Ramirez in the final minutes of his life. “I’m feeling badly. Call my family [in Guatemala]. Pray for me.”

Mr. Ramirez’s testimony was central to a judge’s refusal last week to dismiss a claim of conscious pain and suffering in an ongoing civil complaint filed by the executor of Mr. Miguel’s estate against the drunken driver of the other vehicle in the crash. The decision thwarted the latest effort of John Costello of Greenport, who pleaded guilty more than four years ago to vehicular manslaughter in criminal court, to limit his financial exposure in the civil case.

In a decision last Thursday, Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice George Nolan rejected a motion filed by Mr. Costello, who was already found liable for causing the crash, to dismiss claims of conscious pain and suffering, pre-impact terror and punitive damages. The judge previously ruled against a defense motion to dismiss a claim for lost wages on the grounds that Mr. Miguel “fraudulently misrepresented his [immigration] status” when he secured his job at Pellegrini Vineyards in 2007.

Now, nearly five years after the civil matter was filed by Pellegrini winemaker Zander Hargrave as administrator of Mr. Miguel’s estate, it could soon be headed for trial on the remaining claims.

‘A jury could infer from the circumstances that Mr. Costello’s conduct was wanton and reckless evincing heedlessness and an utter disregard for the safety of others.’

Judge George Nolan

Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Miguel were returning home in the rain from a laundromat in Greenport in the early evening hours of Dec. 6, 2014. Mr. Costello was headed in the opposite direction along Main Road, having just left Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. in Peconic, located across the street from the house Mr. Miguel and Mr. Ramirez rented along with two other men.

Mr. Costello was a little more than a mile from returning to his destination in downtown Greenport when his pickup truck tragically collided with the sedan carrying Mr. Miguel, according to police reports and witness testimony.

While accounts of the crash differ some among the two drivers and a third man who witnessed it, there are two facts no one disputes: The crash led to the death of Mr. Miguel and, just shy of two years later, Mr. Costello would admit criminal responsibility for it.

As part of his plea agreement, Mr. Costello, who is now 77, was sentenced to six years’ probation, avoiding jail time. He was also ordered to pay $500 per month during those six years to Mr. Miguel’s wife, Gladys, who lives with their son, Brian, in the town of San Nicolas, Guatemala. Mr. Costello also paid nearly $5,000 in funeral expenses.

John Costello exits his first court appearance At Southold Town Justice Court in December 2014. (Credit: Carrie Miller File Photo)

At a sentencing on Nov. 3, 2016, Acting Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho asked Mr. Costello if he was legally drunk that day.

“That is true,” Mr. Costello responded.

Judge Camacho then asked Mr. Costello if that led him to drive his truck in a way that caused the death of Mr. Miguel.

“That’s correct,” he said. 

But at his deposition in the civil case, Mr. Costello, who owns Costello Marine, a successful contracting business he launched with his late brother George in 1976, denied consuming more than one pint of beer on the day of the crash. In his ruling last week, Judge Nolan pointed out that Mr. Costello’s blood alcohol content measured more than twice the legal limit two hours after the incident.

“Despite heavy rainfall and prior alcohol consumption, Mr. Costello was driving at least 44 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone, and at the scene of the accident, Mr. Costello smelled of alcohol, his speech was slurred, and he was combative and verbally insulted police officers,” the judge wrote. “A jury could infer from the circumstances that Mr. Costello’s conduct was wanton and reckless evincing heedlessness and an utter disregard for the safety of others.” 

In his effort to dispute the claim of pain and suffering experienced by Mr. Miguel in the short time between the crash and his death, Mr. Costello hired famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, host of the former HBO show “Autopsy,” to review medical records and testimony, court records show. Dr. Baden, who is also well known for his testimony on behalf of the defense in the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson, concluded in a sworn affidavit that Mr. Miguel “lost consciousness immediately after the collision” and therefore did not experience conscious pain and suffering. 

“Mr. Ramirez’s testimony two years later that Mr. Miguel was able to speak to him is misremembered and mistaken,” Dr. Baden wrote.

But in denying the motion to dismiss the claim for conscious pain and suffering, Judge Nolan wrote that Mr. Ramirez’s testimony “creates a conflict” with Dr. Baden’s findings and Mr. Costello’s legal team “failed to eliminate all triable issues of fact.”

Just how much Mr. Costello could end up being ordered to pay Mr. Miguel’s family remains to be seen. Both sides could also reach a pretrial settlement.

Bartolone Miguel of Peconic shortly before his death. (Courtesy Photo)

Attorney Frank Torres of Duffy & Duffy in Uniondale, who is representing Mr. Miguel’s estate, declined comment for this story, citing “ongoing active litigation.”

Mr. Costello’s attorney, Bryan Schwartz of the Manhattan law firm Gallo, Vitucci & Klar, also declined comment this week.

Court records show the plaintiffs have estimated that with future raises and benefits, Mr. Miguel, whose reported income was nearly $34,000 the year he died, could have made an additional $1.3 million in his lifetime.

In a deposition, Daisy Gregorio, the sister of Mr. Miguel’s wife, who also left Guatemala for the North Fork, said Mr. Miguel remained close with his family and had wired them money each week.

“All the time they would talk,” Ms. Gregorio testified.

He would call his wife from the vineyard every day at 10 a.m. and noon. And at 7 p.m., he would do a video call with his son, she said.

In the aftermath of Mr. Miguel’s death, his wife and son have visited a therapist, Ms. Gregorio said at her 2018 deposition. Ms. Miguel also had heart surgery.

“The news was so bad, she wasn’t eating,” Ms. Gregorio said of her sister’s health. “When something happens, you feel heart pressure. Like emotional.”

Sister Margaret Smyth of North Fork Spanish Apostolate, who was appointed to handle getting Mr. Costello’s court-ordered payments to Mr. Miguel’s family in Guatemala, said it’s one of the first local criminal cases she’s heard of involving the death of an immigrant where the person convicted was ordered to make such payments. That payment arrangement expires next year.

“It’s made a difference in the life of the family back home, but it still doesn’t replace him,” said Sister Margaret, who was also deposed in the civil matter. “What’s the life of a human being worth? A human being was killed and he was killed by a person who was under the influence.”