At first she was the “Aunt From Hell,” with an #AuntFrom-Hell hashtag to match. Jennifer Connell, age 54, had sued her young nephew, Sean Tarala, for $127,000 over an incident at the boy’s eighth birthday party in 2011. Sean had impetuously jumped into Connell’s arms to greet her when she arrived at the party, causing her to fall and break her wrist.
At the two-day trial in mid-October in Bridgeport, Conn. (the boy and his father, Michael Tarala, lived in nearby Westport), everything seemed to go wrong for Connell strategically, and perhaps legally, too. Sean’s mother had died a year before the lawsuit went to trial, and the 12-year-old Sean accompanied by his father in the courtroom made a mournful sight. Connell, by contrast, was a childless, brassy-blonde human resources manager in Manhattan, with an apartment on the opulent Upper East Side. “I was at a party recently and it was difficult to hold my hors d’oeuvres plate,” she testified by way of explaining how much physical discomfort the accident had caused her.
It took the jury only 20 minutes to decide on October 13 that Sean had not been negligent in his enthusiastic embrace and to award Connell zero for her efforts. She fared no better in the court of public opinion. The sobriquet “Auntie Maim” began to appear on social media. (Technically speaking, Connell is not Sean’s aunt but his first cousin once removed.) “Yes, it’s so tragic that your social life has been disrupted, Jennifer,” a sarcastic Gabriella Ginsberg wrote for HollywoodLife. The webzine also took a poll: “Should Jennifer have won the case?” Some 96.5 percent of respond-ents voted “No way!” while only 3.5 percent voted “Yes.”
Then trial lawyers got into the act in an effort to turn Connell into the Aunt More Sinned Against Than Sinning. It began with Connell’s own lawyers, who issued a statement: “From the start, this was a case about one thing: getting medical bills paid by [Michael Tarala’s] homeowner’s insurance. . . . Our client was very reluctant to pursue this case, but in the end she had no choice. . . . [H]er hand was forced by the insurance company.”
In other words, according to the lawyers, Connell was simply a victim of a mean-spirited insurance company that had refused to settle with her before trial (the company, whose name was not disclosed in court, was reported to have offered her exactly one dollar). Also to blame, her lawyers said, was Connecticut law, which, like the laws of other states, requires that injured people file a lawsuit against the allegedly negligent party in order to collect from an insurance company insuring property not one’s own. Connell and even Sean himself told reporters that they loved each other, and Connell insisted that she had been forced to sue only as a way to get reimbursed for two surgeries (and a likely third) stemming from the accident. “This was meant to be a simple homeowners insurance case,” she told CNN.
Other trial lawyers jumped to agree wholeheartedly. “People have been suing children since suing began,” Danny Cevallos, a personal-injury lawyer in Pennsylvania, wrote in a column for CNN. He elaborated further:
Another way of looking at it is that if someone like Connell gets injured in a completely well-meaning accident, and has some serious or permanent impairment, then we agree that has a cost to her, right? Especially if she can’t work or engage in life activities. And if there is someone else responsible for that injury, and that someone’s actions are covered under an insurance policy, then at some point, that someone, or another someone paid for that coverage. Believe me, that insurance company had no complaints about accepting someone’s money to insure that activity.
New York personal-injury lawyer Eric Turkewitz wrote on his blog: “Certainly insurance companies would prefer that folks don’t sue. It would be a great business model, wouldn’t it, to keep collecting all those premiums and never pay anything out?”