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August 26, 2004 - Drunken driver's victim wins settlement from car leaser

A settlement has been reached in a lawsuit against a drunk driver and the company that leased the driver her car.

In March 2003, Tori L. Andreozzi, then 12, was struck by a car while walking home from her bus stop in West Warwick, Rhode Island, suffering permanent brain damage. Her parents sued the driver, Marilyn D. Brownell, and BMW Financial Services, which leased Brownell her car.

The terms of the July 27 Superior Court settlement were not disclosed, but it is known that the plaintiffs had asked for $39.3 million and the defendants had offered $25 million.

Brownell was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison, and lawyers in the suit reached a verbal agreement on the terms of the settlement later the same day.

The settlement followed a ruling by Judge Alice B. Gibney, in early July, that allowed the Andreozzis to proceed with the lawsuit against BMW Financial Services.

BMW had asked to be removed from suit, arguing that it bore no responsibility for the accident because Brownell had posted proof of insurance and financial responsibility when she leased the car.

Although BMW was not accused of negligence, Gibney ruled that state law allowed it to be sued under the principle of "vicarious liability" -- because BMW owned the car and gave Brownell permission to drive it, the company shared liability with her.

Car-leasing companies in Rhode Island began chafing at the state law governing liability in 2002, when a jury awarded a Pawtucket woman $28 million after a crash left her a paraplegic. Chase Manhattan Automotive Finance Corp., which had leased the car involved in the collision, had asked to be removed from the lawsuit, but the state Supreme Court ruled that the company could be liable.

On March 26, 2003 -- the same day that Tori Andreozzi was struck by the car in West Warwick -- Ford Motor Credit Co. threatened to stop leasing cars in Rhode Island unless the law was changed. Most of the other leasing companies either stopped leasing here, or threatened to do so.

The General Assembly acted that July, adopting a law that capped the lessor's liability, on a long-term lease, at $100,000 per injured individual, and $300,000 per accident.

The Andreozzis' would have received far less if the accident had occurred when the new law was in effect. Brownell has few resources, and minimal insurance, and the majority of the settlement money came from BMW's insurers.

Tori is virtually unable to move, and cannot communicate, or even swallow her own saliva. She needs round-the-clock nursing care, which the family could not afford before the settlement. Medicaid would pay for only 14 or 15 hours per day.

The settlement will also allow the family to move to a bigger house, with handicapped-accessible features and space for medical and therapy equipment.
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