By KATIE WALMSLEY
July 11, 2011
When Thomas Timko made an obscene hand gesture to a driver who irked him, he may not have predicted the disastrous chain of events he set in motion — but his daughter believes he could and should have, and she’s suing him to prove it.
Driving home in October 2008 after taking his daughter Kaitlyn, now 11, for a day of shopping and swimming, Timko became angry when another driver cut him off on the Walt Whitman Bridge near Philadelphia, and flipped the guy the finger.
Unfortunately for Timko, he picked the wrong driver to tick off. Christian Squillaciotti, a schizophrenic former Marine with a gun, responded by firing four times into Timko’s car, striking him in the head.
Miraculously, not only did Timko survive the shooting and manage to stop the car, but Kaitlyn in the back seat was unharmed by the bullets or shattered glass.
For both father and daughter, however, the incident has had a crippling aftermath. Timko suffered permanent brain damage and struggles with a disfiguring scar and soaring medical debts. As for Kaitlyn, her mother Lori Hardwerk, says she’s never psychologically recovered.
Now Kaitlyn, through Hardwerk, is suing her father for compensation, saying his road rage not only provoked his own shooting, but left her with lasting emotional scars.
According to Hardwerk, who never married Timko though they were together for 20 years before they broke up in 2009, Kaitlyn has displayed signs of severe trauma since the shooting occurred.
“Prior to the incident, Kaitlyn was very outgoing and energetic — a normal little girl,” Hardwerk said. “Afterwards, she went into a shell. In addition to being extremely shy and introverted, Kaitlyn became afraid of being away from me and is very nervous when she is out of my sight.”
Hardwerk arranged for Kaitlyn to have weekly therapy visits that were set up by a crime victims’ program, but she says they haven’t resolved Kaitlyn’s issues and nearly three years after the shooting her daughter still displays signs of emotional damage.
“Kaitlyn remains afraid of anything that she cannot control, as well as loud noises, such as fireworks, thunder, motorcycles, etc,” says Hardwerk.
According to child psychologist Dr David Fassler, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, this horrific experience contained a perfect storm of factors that lead to Kaitlyn’s lasting trauma.
“Direct exposure to violent and confusing events involving people you know will typically have a more significant and lasting effect than a distant event involving strangers or acquaintances,” he said.
“Kids also tend to react more to incidents which threaten the stability and predictability of their lives and immediate families,” he says. “Kids who’ve had such experiences often require comprehensive and ongoing treatment to help them cope and go on with their lives.”
But it’s exactly this type of treatment that Hardwerk, who has not worked since a 2001 car accident left her disabled, says she cannot afford, and the initial insurance payout didn’t cover.
Kaitlyn’s attorney, Christopher Culleton of law firm Swartz Culleton PC, said Timko exacerbated a potentially deadly situation and deserves be held accountable.
“He cannot provoke other drivers, especially when he has his kid in the car,” Culleton said. “Mr. Timko gave him the finger, through the sunroof. That escalated the situation.”
But Timko’s attorney Kevin McNulty says it’s a case of misdirected anger.
“In no way was Mr. Squillaciotti’s act of shooting another driver a normal consequence of driving into the lane of travel of another vehicle,” McNulty wrote in a motion to dismiss the case. “Mr. Squillaciotti is the proximate cause of her alleged emotional distress, not her own father.”
McNulty also argued that the alleged harm to the plaintiff is so remote from the actions of the defendant, that the defendant cannot be found legally responsible.
A judge in Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court denied the motion and the case has now moved to discovery, but is not expected to go to trial for more than a year.
Even more surprising, perhaps, than the decision to sue her own father, Kaitlyn’s suit doesn’t name his shooter, Christian Squilliacotti. While he may seem the most obvious target for a lawsuit, Squillaciotti — who was convicted of two counts of attempted murder and weapons charges and is currently serving a 13- to 26-year jail term — has no assets, and his insurance would actually not apply because the shooting was intentional. The former Marine has also been diagnosed wtih schizophrenia.
The suit does name his wife and passenger, Chastity Squillaciotti. as a defendant, climing that she bears some responsibility because she knew about her husband’s mental health issues, but neglected to prevent him getting behind the wheel while aggravated.
“Clearly she knows her husband’s got problems, and she’s sitting in the car while he’s driving,” Culleton said. “We need to explore whether she should have done something, whether she could have done something.”
Christian Squillaciotti told police that following Timko’s hand gesture, he heard voices urging him to kill the man, saying, “Kill him, kill that motherf—–,” just seconds before he opened fire into the car.
Police said they found numerous weapons at Squillaciotti’s home; but that Squillaciotti did have a gun permit. Culleton said the family hasn’t ruled out a law suit against whoever was responsible for granting Squillaciotti’s permit, but the investigation into those circumstances is still ongoing.
“We are still in the early stages of discovery and have not yet learned the exact circumstances of how the shooter obtained the permit or whether the permit was even valid at the time of the shooting,” he said.
The Philadelphia Police Department, which handled the Squillaciotti case, has not yet commented on the status of that investigation.
In the meantime, Kaitlyn will press forward with what may at first seem the unprecedented step of suing her own father, a man who was critically injured by the incident in question.
But children suing parents for a trauma they believe the parent caused isn’t as rare as you might think. Not only does it happen, but the parents are sometimes to a certain extent complicit, despite being defendants in the suit.
In 2007, Teddy Harrison of Anoka County, Minn., successfully sued his parents over a car crash in 2001 that left him permanently disabled. Harrison’s parents were willing defendants, as their attorney Robert King explained to The Associated Press at the time.
“This suit is about forcing the parents’ insurance company to live up to its responsibility,” King told the AP.
As a result of the suit, the Harrisons’ auto insurance company was forced to pay Teddy $100,000, money that contributed to his ongoing care.
While Timko, as both victim of an out of control road rage incident, and Kaitlyn’s father, might seem like an unlikely defendant because he has no assets, this suit, like the Harrisons’, will target his insurance on the basis of negligent driving.
“Kaitlyn continues to have an active relationship with her father and they still have visits with each other,” Hardwerk said.
The suit doesn’t accuse Timko of routine reckless behavior or general bad parenting, and it’s likely Timko is aware this may be his daughter’s only way of supporting her ongoing psychological care.
Culleton offered some insight into the possibility that what may seem like a situation fraught with vitriol, may in fact not be.
“Regardless of familial relationship, there is no impediment to bringing a claim against an offending family member,” he said. “It does not imply or require hard feelings.”
It’s certainly the case that Timko’s initial insurance was not sufficient for this particular eventuality. Many people only carry the minimal auto insurance, which in Pennsylvania would pay out a mere $5,000 towards medical expenses.
Sayde Ladov, past chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association and partner in the law firm of Dolchin, Slotkin and Todd said the case shines a light on the imperfect nature of the insurance system.
Most motor vehicle policies exclude coverage for intentional acts, such as Squillaciotti firing a gun into the car. Some policies include “uninsured motorists coverage,” in which case you have to proceed against your own carrier to gain benefits.
Most drivers don’t carry the most comprehensive insurance, which might cover such eventualities, because they’re more expensive. Even with the most expensive policies, there are usually several exclusions.
“Insurance can only insure against what is a forseeable risk,” Ladov said. “And if the risk is not forseeable and the gentleman who is the shooter has no assets and the insurance policy on her dad’s vehicle doesn’t cover it, Kaitlyn’s out of luck.”
Kaitlyn and her father have handled the situation by simply not discussing the case, Hardwerk said, but Fassler cautioned that if the suit does create further friction between Kaitlyn’s parents there’s a danger it may still be counterproductive for Kaitlyn herself.
“Ongoing conflict between parents, with or without legal involvement, puts kids at increased risk of emotional and behavioral problems, Fassler said. “In general, the sooner things get resolved, the better, for everyone involved.”