Families of Cutchogue limo crash victims say ‘full justice’ not served in settlement ruling

In July 2015, the lives of four young women were lost in a fatal limo crash in Cutchogue. This tragedy made national headlines, led to stricter limousine safety regulations and recently resulted in a $6.1 million settlement for the victims’ families and crash survivors. 

But the plaintiffs still feel they haven’t received the “full justice” they deserve. 

“The money is not really the important thing; so many people have focused on the money,” said Nancy DiMonte, mother of survivor Joelle DiMonte. “We are extremely disappointed that Suffolk County did not come in good faith to the mediation, as all the other parties did.” 

The multi-million-dollar settlement was reached in August, resolving the families’ lawsuit against the limo company, limo driver, the limo manufacturer, the driver of the other vehicle involved in the crash, Suffolk County and the Town of Southold, according to an attorney involved in the case.

Attorney Robert Sullivan, who represents the family of victim Lauren Baruch, said Ultimate Class Limousine Inc. and limo driver Carlos Pino are each required to pay $1.5 million. Steven Romeo, the driver of the pickup truck that collided with the limo, will pay $500,000.

The manufacturer of the 2007 Lincoln Town Car stretch limousine driven by Mr. Pino will pay the highest sum: $4 million. In a summary judgment dated June 21, Judge Stephen Hackeling dismissed all plaintiffs’ claims against both the Town of Southold and Suffolk County. Nonetheless, the town will contribute $100,000 to the settlement — a decision that was made at the sole discretion of its insurance carrier, according to Supervisor Scott Russell.

In a previous statement, Mr. Sullivan said the families were disappointed that Southold wasn’t held liable for damages, as they believe the town is “morally responsible.” 

The four young women who lost their lives in the July 18, 2015 crash: (from left: Amy Grabina, Lauren Baruch, Stephanie Belli and Brittney Schulman)

According to court documents, the families alleged that the Town of Southold and Suffolk County were negligent in the “ownership and maintenance” of the intersection of County Road 48, owned by the county, and Depot Lane, owned by the town. The plaintiffs stated that both parties had failed to install proper traffic control devices at that location and that “these failures were a proximate cause of the accident.” 

Ms. DiMonte said there had been long-standing community concerns about the lack of traffic signals and signage at the intersection, and nothing was done to address them until after this tragedy occurred. 

“Suffolk County roads are anything less than safe,” Ms. DiMonte said. “Despite all the legislation that we took part in, they’re still not safe — there is still no [no] U-turn signal where this crash took place.” 

Regarding the settlement, Mr. Russell said the town’s insurance carrier made “a business decision without the town’s knowledge” in agreeing to make the $100,000 contribution to the settlement.

Mr. Russell said the town did not have any control over that decision, which he believed was based on the calculation of the likely costs of defending the town in any previously filed appeals. 

Mr. Russell said he is confident the town is not culpable. 

“It should be clear to everyone that the nominal amount offered by the town’s carrier that was, in fact, accepted by the plaintiff’s representative, clearly indicates that any claims trying to assign blame to the town were soundly rejected by the judge,” Mr. Russell said. “We must move on and focus on road safety so such a devastating event does not happen again rather than fostering ill-will with baseless insults and unfounded criticism.” 

The June 21 court order absolving the Town of Southold and Suffolk County of legal responsibility for the crash includes the families’ contention that the town should have been held accountable for the injuries and resulting deaths because it did not take action to improve the safety of the intersection prior to the accident. 

Since Southold does not own County Road 48, town officials argued it was under no duty to place signs or traffic control devices at the intersection and could only have done so on the recommendation of the county. 

Suffolk County argued that it was entitled to “qualified immunity” because traffic studies were conducted on the intersection prior to the accident. Through their findings, the county claimed it did not have the “requisite actual or constructive notice that the intersection was a ‘dangerous’ intersection.”

A memorial to the victims remains at the site of the Route 48 and Depot Lane crash. (Grant Parpan file photo)

Daniel Dresch, who was director of traffic engineering and highway work permits for Suffolk County at that time, testified that between 1999 and 2002, the county received three requests about upgrading the flashing lights at the intersection to a three-color traffic signal. The residents who submitted these requests expressed concerns about speeding, traffic volume and difficulty crossing County Road 48. 

The summary judgment stated there is “ample evidence” of Southold Town residents complaining about traffic conditions at the intersection, including frequent U-turns and three-point-turns made by limousines and other large vehicles. However, despite these complaints being submitted to and discussed by town officials, there was no indication that they had been raised at the county level , the document said.

Suffolk County installed a three-color traffic light at the intersection in September 2015, roughly two months after the accident, according to court records. 

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski said the county’s efforts to make its roads and intersections safer are never-ending. 

“I want to express my sympathies to the families; this was a horrible accident and a horrible tragedy,” Mr. Krupski said in an interview Friday. “It’s non-stop with the county [Department of Public Works] of evaluating all the intersections in the county for safety.” 

Ms. DiMonte said she and the other families impacted by this tragedy are still fighting to get legislation passed in Albany, including the Grieving Families Act — which would allow families of wrongful-death victims to receive compensation for their emotional anguish. 

She added that Southold residents have been very supportive of the families since the accident

“Why were the townspeople so upset over this intersection? And years later, we’re the poster children now for not being proactive,” Ms. DiMonte said. “The question remains with us as to why accountability was so evaded and why [Suffolk County was] dismissed. It’s very, very disheartening to us.”