Tragedy and litigation

More than a decade has passed since a limousine crash in Birmingham ended the careers of Red Wings star Vladimir Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov, but the complicated legal battles could just be nearing a conclusion.

The final lawsuit stemming from the crash goes to trial later this month in federal court in Detroit, with the victims seeking compensation from the Ohio auto dealership that sold the limousine to a Michigan livery. It's a product liability case: At issue is the dealer's liability — if any — for inaccessible and defective seat belts.

Just six days after the Red Wings' 1997 Stanley Cup championship — the team's first in more than 40 years — the accident shocked metro Detroit and turned fans' elation into grief. Konstantinov, Mnatsakanov and former player Viacheslav Fetisov were riding in a limousine traveling on Woodward Avenue in Birmingham after a team golf outing celebrating the championship. They were headed back to goalie Chris Osgood's house where they had rendezvoused before the game.

The limo crossed over several lanes of traffic onto the median and crashed into a tree. The passengers were thrown from their seats in the rear of the vehicle into its partition. They weren't wearing seat belts, but their attorneys contend some of the safety restraints weren't available — they were wrapped in rubber bands and tucked under the seats — and some had faulty latches making them inoperable.

The limo driver, Richard Gnida, has said he blacked out. He had minor injuries. He later was found to have marijuana in his system and received a nine-month sentence for driving with a suspended license.

Fetisov also had minor injuries and returned to play in 1997-98 before retiring. The Red Wings dedicated that season to their injured teammates and won another Stanley Cup. Konstantinov attended the final game and hoisted the trophy above his head from his wheelchair, giving fans the impression that he was recovering.

Their lead attorney, Richard Goodman, says those were false hopes.

Konstatinov and Mnatsakanov had suffered devastating injuries. Both men still require round-the-clock care and expensive therapies and have no chance for physical or mental improvement.

Mnatsakanov is permanently paralyzed from the chest down, according to Goodman, and has no bowel or bladder function. He's legally blind in one eye. The skull fracture he suffered caused extensive brain damage.

Konstantinov, Goodman says, has a very severe brain injury. "It's kind of torn apart. The communicating links in the brain were disrupted violently, and this interferes with things like movement, ambulation and a lot of cognitive skills, most important of which is judgment."

Mnatsakanov lives at home in a Detroit suburb with his wife as his sole caregiver. Konstantinov is in a private assisted-living facility in Detroit.

"I think both families are very anxious to be done with this case and get it behind them," Goodman says. "Ten years is a long time, and they're still coping with this unbelievable catastrophe every day."

The legal proceedings on their behalf have been as complicated as the trail of events that converted a Lincoln Town Car into the stretch limo that would ultimately ferry a driver and three passengers to disaster.

Millions in losses, costs

According to court filings, Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov have lost at least $80 million and $2 million respectively in earnings and face at least $21 million and $13.5 million in future medical costs. The suit against the dealership seeks in excess of $100,000.

Scheduled to begin April 28, the trial in Detroit's U.S. District Court is expected to last three to four weeks. The potential witness list includes former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, team owner Mike Ilitch, former captain Steve Yzerman and current players Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios.

The federal complaint calls Findlay Ford Lincoln Mercury, of Findlay, Ohio, "grossly negligent in supplying, designing, assembling and/or selling a dangerous and unsafe limousine."

According to the lawsuit, Ford Motor Co. originally manufactured the vehicle, a Lincoln Town Car, and sold it to Findlay Ford Lincoln Mercury. The dealership then sent it to the now-defunct National Coach, then certified by Ford Motor Co. to convert the car into a limousine.

National Coach added a middle section to stretch the car and refitted the interior including seats and seat belts. But according to the suit, the vehicle did not have accessible seat belts along the J-shaped seat on its driver's side in the rear compartment — they were wedged in the seat cushions — and the belts for the rear seat did not latch because they had the wrong parts.

After the Town Car became a limo, Findlay Ford re-took ownership of it from National Coach and sold it to Gambino's Westside Limousine Services, its owner at the time of the crash. Because the dealership sold the defective vehicle, it's liable for the men's injuries, says Kathleen Kalahar, Goodman's law partner.

"Findlay Ford had a legal duty to inspect the vehicle for readily ascertainable defects when it was returned to it from National Coach. It also had a duty to check the seat belts to make sure they were properly installed and functioned," she says. "There is no dispute in this case that Findlay Ford did none of that."

Dealership owner Stan Kujawa and attorney Paul Nystrom, who is with the firm Dykema Gossett in Bloomfield Hills, did not return telephone calls to Metro Times.

However, Findlay Ford's lawyers argue in court documents that Gnida, the driver, and the owner of Gambino's Westside Limousine Services, John Gambino, were to blame.

"Gnida fell asleep at the wheel," they wrote. "Mr. Gnida did not have a valid driver's license at the time and Gambino's owner, John Gambino, who knew he was unlicensed, allowed him to drive."

In fact, Fetisov, Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov initially sued Gnida and the limo company, whose insurance policy had a $2 million limit. That case, filed in 2008 in Oakland County Circuit Court, ended with a three-person mediation panel's unanimous award for the former Red Wings.

But because the men's damages exceeded the insurance policy's limit, the limo company and Gnida sought coverage from the Red Wings' insurers, claiming the team had hired the limousine and its policies should cover the victims. For the injured players and masseur to collect, they had to pursue the insurance companies that wrote the policies for the team's hired cars. The lead insurers were based in New Jersey so the case progressed there.

The New Jersey Supreme Court last year ruled the team's policies did not cover the driver or the limousine company, as the victims' attorneys had argued.

Meanwhile, as the New Jersey case continued, the former Red Wings filed the product liability suit here in 2004.

Goodman and Kalahar contend it doesn't matter legally that that the men weren't wearing seat belts. Because some belts were tucked under a seat and some didn't work at all, the men couldn't use them, Kalahar says.

"Our belief is they were entitled to have a chance to wear their seat belts. They have a right to protect themselves and they weren't given that right," she says.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]
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