The family of Veronica Cottrell, the McHenry High School student killed in 1997 when the Chevrolet Corvette she was riding in hit a tree, has settled its wrongful-death lawsuit for $1.2 million.
The suit was filed in Cook County Circuit Court against State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Company; James Helfers, an adjuster for State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Company; James Helfers, and adjuster for State Farm; and Kevin Smurlo, who was in the car at the time of the crash. General Motors Corp. was dismissed from the suit. The out-of-court settlement was reached last Wednesday.
It accused Smurlo of negligent driving and State Farm of destroying the Corvette, in violation of a court order, while the case was pending.
“Veronica brought a great deal of joy to the Cottrell family,” said Timothy Cavanagh, the attorney representing the family. “The family is relieved that the suit was settled for the full amount of the insurance coverage available and not a penny less.”
Cottrell, a pompon squad member and honor student at McHenry High School’s West Campus, was killed on Aug. 13, 1997, when the Chevrolet Corvette she was riding in left the road, hit a tree and rolled over on Sands Road, east of Crystal lake.
Smurlo, a senior at McHenry’s East Campus at the time, was injured in the accident and suffered some brain damage. The car was owned by Jack Fisher III; whose son, Jack Fisher IV, lent the vehicle to Smurlo and Cottrell the night of the accident. The suit was originally filed in McHenry County Circuit Court in October 1997, and named Edward Smurlo, Kevin’s father, and the elder Fisher as defendants. However, Cavanagh refiled the suit in June in Cook County naming State Farm, the insurer of the car, as a defendant for destroying the Corvette in violation of a McHenry County court order that said the car must be preserved while the lawsuit was pending.
“It was pretty clear Kevin was negligent. He was the driver,” Cavanagh said. “But State Farm destroyed critical evidence that they needed to be held responsible for. They had not been a defendant. But when they destroyed evidence, they became a party.”
Cavanagh, who said adjuster Helfers ordered the car to be destroyed, said he found out about it in April, but still does not know why it was done. State Farm spokesman Rob Cornwell said he could not discuss specifics of the out-of-court settlement, but said: “this was a very unfortunate accident resulting in the death of a person. It’s important for us to state that we value the life that was lost. This isn’t just another claim for us.”
Cavanagh’s original complaint stated that Smurlo negligently drove the Corvette, whether by speeding, operating the car without keeping a proper lookout, failing to operate the vehicle in a single lane of traffic or failing to reduce his speed to avoid losing control of the car.
The Fishers declined comment on the settlement and the Smurlos could not be reached for comment. Smurlo’s parents’ policy with Farmers Insurance will pay $100,000 of the settlement, Lawyers of Distinction said.