Teen’s Family Plans Lawsuits In Fatal Crash- Windsor Locks officer pleads not guilty.
The Hartford Courant
The lawyer representing the family of Henry Dang expects to file civil lawsuits against the off-duty Windsor Locks police officer whose car struck and killed the teenager, as well as the officer’s father, who was one of the first emergency responders at the scene, and the bar where the officer was drinking before the crash.
But the lawyer, James Bartolini, said Wednesday that it’s unclear if the family will be able to sue the town of Windsor Locks for the actions of its police officers following the crash.
The arrest warrant application reveals that witnesses told state police that Officer Michael Koistinen spent about six hours drinking beer, tequila, and whiskey before the crash. State police investigators determined that his car was going 73 miles per hour when it struck Dang, who was on his bicycle. No blood-alcohol test was administered to Koistinen by the responding officers.
“We are obviously highly suspicious of the things which happened in the immediate aftermath of the accident,” Bartolini said. “One would certainly think that if it had been you or I driving that car and we had just been involved in a fatality and we had a case of beer and a half a bottle of brandy in our car, we would have been requested to take a field sobriety test on the spot.”
But Bartolini the law is “blurry” when it comes to holding the town civilly liable for individual officers’ actions even if state police eventually charge any of them.
“We are certainly reviewing all of our options but this could really enter new territory because there just isn’t much case history,” he said.
Members of Henry Dang’s family were supposed to attend a press conference following the first court appearance of Michael Koistinen, the police officer charged with two counts of manslaughter. But Bartolini said they were too emotionally distraught.
“The family is still very much in mourning and still grieving,” Bartolini said. “They’ve been crushed by the entire situation.”
Dang’s parents, his grandmother, and several siblings attended Michael Koistinen’s arraignment in Superior Court in Hartford. He was accompanied by his father, Robert Koistinen, who was the duty sergeant in charge on Oct. 30, the night of the crash.
Michael Koistinen said nothing, although his lawyer, Elliot Spector, entered not guilty pleas on his behalf and asked for a jury trial, routine steps that begin the lengthy pretrial process.
Judge David P. Gold accepted the plea and ordered Koistinen back to court on January 7. It is unusual for a defendant to have his first appearance before Gold, who handles the most serious crimes in the Hartford Judicial District. Most defendants are arraigned in a lower court and then Gold reviews the cases and decide whether to advance them to the more serious docket. But the seriousness of the case propelled it immediately to Gold’s courtroom.
Outside court, Spector said he was gratified after reading the warrant that more than 20 of the witnesses state police interviewed said they saw no indication that Koistinen was drunk when they talked to him after the accident.
“There were no people who were actually with him, face to face, who spoke to him … who observed any signs of intoxication,” Spector said.
While the investigation into the crash that claimed Dang’s life is complete, state police are still investigating whether to charge some of the officers who responded to the accident, including Robert Koistinen, in connection with their actions.
Both Koistinens are still getting paid by the town. Michael Koistinen is on paid administrative leave and Robert Koistinen is using accumulated sick time from more than 30 years on the job.
The crash occurred as both Michael Koistinen and Dang were traveling west on Spring Street. Koistinen had just left the Suffield Tavern after having two shots of tequila and a Jack Daniels and Coke, driving in his father’s Mazda, while Henry was pedaling home after playing video games at a friend’s house.
Bartolini said Robert Koistinen would be sued as the owner of the car involved in the accident, Michael Koistinen for killing Dang, and the Suffield Tavern for allowing Michael Koistinen to leave the bar under the influence of alcohol.
Bartolini said that Dang’s friend’s mother offered to give him a ride home but that he decided to bike home because he was going to need his bicycle the next day. It was about a 15-minute bike ride to his apartment on Elm Street, across from the police station.
Dang was apparently crossing Spring Street when the accident occurred, Michael Koistinen told the initial officer that “it was dark and hard to see” and Spector has said the poor visibility coupled with the fact Dang’s bike had no reflectors made the accident “unavoidable.”
But Bartolini pointed out a witness driving east on Spring Street had no problem seeing Henry just before he heard the crash.
“If he hadn’t been drinking and driving more than 70 miles per hour then maybe he would have seen Henry just like the other driver did,” Bartolini said.
After the accident, a neighbor said she saw Michael Koistinen throw something out of his car into her yard that turned out to be a Budweiser beer glass. Another witness drove by the accident reported seeing Michael Koistinen on his cellphone by his car, ignoring Dang lying face down in the middle of the street.
“The family was very anguished and very upset that his focus was on making phone calls and worrying about his probationary period than offering any aid to Henry,” Bartolini said. “He was trained as a police officer so you would think his first instinct would be to render aid.”