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Diocese, charity agree to pay $6.1 million to disabled woman hurt in '05 van crash

Posted on Dec 09, 2006

Diocese, charity agree to pay $6.1 million to disabled woman hurt in '05 van crash By Lona O'Connor Palm Beach Post Religion Writer Friday, December 08, 2006 WEST PALM BEACH — The Palm Beach Diocese and its charitable arm, Catholic Charities, formally agreed Thursday to pay $6.1 million to the family of a Special Olympics swimmer, one of six who have sued over a fatal van crash last year. The lawsuits arose from a crash in August 2005, when a van carrying 13 disabled residents of a Boca Raton group home veered off Powerline Road and hit a tree, killing one passenger and injuring several others. More local news Latest breaking news, photos and all of today's Post stories. State news Storm 2006: Hurricane news Sound off in the forum Columnists Crime, live scanners Photos | Special reports Weather | Traffic | Obituaries The families of Michael Cass, 55, who died from his injuries, and five of the injured passengers sued the van driver; as well as Catholic Charities, which operated the group home; and the Palm Beach Diocese, alleging negligence. Four of the lawsuits are settled or nearly settled. Lori Hoyt, who sustained a brain injury and lost sight in one eye, was awarded $6.1 million, according to court documents approved Thursday by Circuit Judge Jeffrey Winikoff. The judge explained to Hoyt's mother, Lorraine, that the amount will be paid out over time to a trust administering the settlement. Lori Hoyt, who turns 47 today, will receive more than $20,000 a month for life to pay for her therapy, medical treatments and other expenses. The payments are set to begin in February. "Thank you for resolving this," Winikoff told attorneys for the diocese and Hoyt. "I don't like trying cases that are lose-lose." Hoyt's lawsuit alleged she will require around-the-clock care for the rest of her life, which could cost more than $20 million. An accomplished swimmer who won awards at the Special Olympics, she received a special high school diploma from Bright Horizons and before the accident taught reading to others with disabilities. "I hope it is all behind us now," Lorraine Hoyt said after the brief court hearing. The settlement amounts for Cass' relatives and two of the other injured passengers, Kathy Smith and Christine Ambler, which still have to be finalized, were not disclosed. Brooks Ricca, who represented Catholic Charities and the diocese in the suit, said the settlement went through "amicably." He would not reveal the amounts of the other three settlements, but said all the settlements will be paid by an insurance policy. "The whole thing was tragic and I'm just glad it's getting resolved," Ricca said. "We want nothing but the best for these people." Catholic Charities spokeswoman Kelly Layman said in a statement Thursday that the organization was "pleased about the resolution of this lawsuit." The van driver, Vena Valceus, said a car cut her off, but a witness driving behind the van told reporters after the accident there was no other car involved. The van, traveling about 45 mph, left the road, went through a hedge, broke through a concrete wall and hit a tree. Four people were taken by TraumaHawk helicopter and ambulances to Delray Medical Center. According to Florida driving records, Valceus, who was substituting for the regular van driver, was convicted of driving with improper equipment in 2001 and 2004. She was charged in 2001 with driving with a canceled, revoked or suspended license, but judgment was withheld. Her personal injury protection insurance was canceled in 2004. The diocese did federal and state criminal checks on Valceus and a private investigation, but did not check driving records, a diocese spokesman said at the time of the crash. The passengers, ranging in age from 20 to 55, lived at the Nazareth Homes, three Boca Raton-area group homes operated by Catholic Charities. In May, Catholic Charities told residents' families that the homes would be closed in August because they were running a deficit, but families wrote letters of protest to officials and picketed diocese headquarters. After several months of negotiations, Catholic Charities agreed to give the homes to a nonprofit foundation, which now runs the homes. Cass, of Boca Raton, died in a Fort Lauderdale long-term care facility 11 weeks after the crash. He had been active in Horses and the Handicapped and competed in the Special Olympics. Hoyt, Smith and another injured passenger, Joseph Levanti, have returned to work at the Habilitation Center. Hoyt will return to the Nazareth Homes this month, her mother said. Two other lawsuits stemming from the crash are still pending. Lawsuits filed in November by Levanti's family and in February by Mary Rath's family remain to be resolved. Ricca said he hopes to settle those suits out of court as well. Smith, now 56, broke her hip and both major bones in her left leg. She also fractured her skull and right eye socket and had a collapsed lung. She has metal plates in her hip and rods in her leg and uses a walker. Smith has had a number of physical problems arising from her hip and leg fractures, including blood clots. When Smith's sister, Vickie Green, recently took her to Bethesda Medical Center, she said she was horrified to read the name tag of the phlebotomist: Vena Valceus, the former van driver. When Green told Valceus who her patient was, Valceus replied: "This is going to follow me for the rest of my life." Green responded: "Yeah, us too."

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