HARTFORD — The House has turned back the family of a 14-year-old Prospect boy looking to hold the state Department of Motor Vehicles accountable for wrongly granting a license to a five-time DUI offender who killed him.
The family of Matthew Kenney has been seeking to pursue a wrongful death claim against the DMV because the driver responsible was granted a license even though his previous five convictions for driving under the influence rendered him ineligible.
The House voted 77-58 on Saturday to accept a recommendation from the state claims commissioner to deny a waiver the Kenney family needed to seek its day in court.
Generally, state government enjoys broad immunity from lawsuits.
State Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, R-Prospect, led an unsuccessful effort to grant the waiver.
The Prospect teen was killed riding his bicycle on Route 69 in April 2007 when he was hit by a car driven by then 45-year-old David Weaving of Waterbury. A Republican-American investigation determined that a computer glitch and a mistake by DMV personnel allowed Weaving to have his license restored after his fifth DUI conviction in 1999.
Weaving was sentenced in 2009 to 10 years in prison for the boy’s death. The same year, the family filed a wrongful-death suit against Weaving and against the DMV.
Despite the tragic and compelling nature of the claim, a majority of the Judiciary Committee concluded there was no compelling state interest or legal justification to overturn the claims commissioner’s dismissal.
Joanne Kenney, mother of Matthew Kenney, filed a claim seeking to bring a wrongful death action against the state because the DMV granted Weaver a license when the law clearly prohibited him from having one because of his DUI convictions.
In an impassioned appeal, Zupkus recounted how Weaver was driving recklessly nearly 40 mph over the speed limit when he struck Matthew while changing lanes in a no-passing zone.
“This gentlemen was given his license back time and time and time again after all these DUIs, so, yes, it is a tragic case, and I do ask my colleagues to vote against this,” she said.
State Rep. Melissa H. Ziobron, R-East Haddam, supported Zupkus.
“I think this is an example of having laws on the books, not enforcing them, and this is what happens because we are not enforcing the laws we already have,” she said.
State Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, disagreed, saying the DMV was not the proximate cause of Matthew’s death.
“It was a very, very sad case, but at the end of the day the claims commissioner went by the law, and although the facts are tragic, the law is the claim should have been dismissed,” he said.
In supporting the claim’s dismissal, state Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, House vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, also cited the passage of time between the reinstatement of Weaver’s license in 1999 and the fatal collision.
State law shields the state government from lawsuits, so parties wishing to sue the state must seek permission from the Office of the Claims Commissioner.
The commissioner can reject a claim, grant permission to sue the state or grant an award.
The Kenney family’s previous attempts to hold the DMV accountable through the state courts stalled. The state Appellate Court ruled in 2010 that the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity shielded then-DMV Commissioner Robert Ward from liability.
The doctrine protects government officials and employees from lawsuits resulting from the performance of their duties.
The Kenney family amended their lawsuit three times in an unsuccessful effort to hold Ward and the department liable in Matthew’s death.
In 2010, another three-judge panel of the Appellate Court rejected Weaving’s appeal of conviction for second-degree manslaughter in December 2009.
He was sentenced to eight years, and he has since been released.