SOUTHINGTON — A police officer is facing lawsuits over his failure to pull over a driver who sped by him about 10 minutes before a 2015 crash that killed two children and injured their mother.
The lawsuits filed earlier this month on behalf of Kayla Torres, of Meriden, and the estates of her two deceased children also name the town and Michael Luponio, the other driver in the crash. Luponio, whose blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Notices of intent to sue had been filed in June 2016.
Torres was headed home to Meriden from Bristol in December 2015 after picking up her children Veronica Martinez, 7, and Yvette Martinez, 4, and cousin. Her vehicle was struck by Luponio’s minivan, injuring her and a passenger, Miguel Melendez. Both children died in the crash.
Melendez filed lawsuits in 2016 against 22 parties, including Southington police officer Matthew Vose, the town and owners of the bars that served Luponio alcohol.
According to the new lawsuits, Vose should have pulled over Luponio, who sped by him about 10 minutes before the fatal accident.
Vose told investigators that a van drove by him at a “noticeably faster” speed. He turned his cruiser lights on, but did not make them flash or strobe. Vose opted not to pursue the vehicle, however, “as the speed violation was minor and he did not want to pursue it outside of his jurisdiction,” Luponio’s arrest warrant said.
Vose was then flagged down by a man who told Bristol investigators he was getting off Interstate 84 at Exit 31 when his vehicle was nearly struck by Luponio’s minivan. Luponio yelled an expletive at the man and threw a glass bottle at his vehicle, the warrant said. The man said Luponio was driving “at a high rate of speed” on West Street in Southington and that he stopped to talk to Vose after Luponio “blew by” the officer.
The two lawsuits were filed by different law firms, but both make the same arguments: Vose should have stopped Luponio, who was speeding and driving recklessly, and should have known letting him go would result in a danger to the public. Vose also should have notified Bristol police after hearing from the witness who was nearly struck by Luponio’s minivan, according to the two complaints.
Two area attorneys weighed in on Melendez’ lawsuit against Vose last year. They’re not part of that suit or the ones recently filed.
John Williams, a New Haven criminal defense lawyer, said it is difficult to prove liability on the part of an officer in these types of situations. Making stops or arrests are at the discretion of officers, he said, and there's rarely liability for failing to take action.
Jeremiah O'Connor, a Meriden attorney, said officers are normally protected from lawsuits by governmental immunity. O'Connor said police officers are forced to make split-second judgments on whether or not to pull over cars and aren't under any obligation to detain every speeder.
The Flood Law Firm of Middletown is representing Veronica Martinez’s estate. Trantolo & Trantolo of Waterbury is representing Torres and the estate of Yvette Martinez. The town of Southington’s policy is not to comment on pending lawsuits.