Kaitlyn Timko's father was driving her back to her mother's house after a visit with him when another driver shot him in the head during a road-rage dispute in Philadelphia. He slumped over the wheel and the car was bloodied as Kaitlyn sat in the back seat.
Neither the four bullets fired nor the flying glass struck the 9-year-old. But she was barely responsive when a counselor interviewed her that week, and her mother said she remains traumatized two years later.
Now Kaitlyn _ through her mother _ has sued her dad, charging that he set off a chain of events that led to the gunfire by cutting off the other driver.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
“He cannot provoke other drivers, especially when he has his kid in the car,” plaintiff lawyer Christopher Culleton said. “Mr. Timko gave him the finger, through the sunroof. That escalated the situation.”
Culleton represents Lori Hardwerk, 40, of Norristown, who filed suit on her daughter's behalf this year in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. Hardwerk is seeking damages to pay for the intensive counseling she feels the 10-year-old needs to deal with post-traumatic stress.
The once-bubbly child never wants her mother out of sight, remains anxious about visits with her father and sometimes struggles to focus at school, Hardwerk said.
“Before, she was real outgoing, energetic and athletic. Then when it happened, it's like everything shut down,” Hardwerk told The Associated Press this month.
Weekly therapy visits secured through a crime victims' program has helped, but not enough, she said.
“She's taking tiny baby steps ... but she still has a lot of anxiety when it comes to being separated (from me),” the mother said.
The October 2009 expressway shooting near the Walt Whitman Bridge left Thomas Timko with permanent brain injuries, a disfiguring scar and high medical debts. Shooter Christian Squillaciotti, a schizophrenic ex-Marine, is serving a 13- to
26-year prison term after being convicted of two counts of attempted murder and weapons charges.
Timko's lawyer calls the shooting unforeseeable _ and argues that his client did not directly cause it.
“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,” lawyer Kevin McNulty wrote in a motion to dismiss the case. “Mr. Squillaciotti is the proximate cause of her alleged emotional distress, not her own father.”
The judge denied the motion, moving the case to discovery, which is now under way. The case is not expected to go to trial for at least a year.
Neither Squillaciotti nor Timko appear to have any assets to recoup, leaving Culleton to go after Timko's auto insurance under negligent driving claims.
Squillaciotti's insurance would not apply because the shooting was intentional, Culleton said. But the lawsuit also names his wife and passenger, Chastity Squillaciotti, as a defendant, under the theory that she co-owned the Ford F150 pickup, and should not have let her 6-foot-4, 275-pound husband drive it in his presumably agitated state.
“Clearly, she knows her husband's got problems, and she's sitting in the car while he's driving. We need to explore whether she should have done something, whether she could have done something,” said Culleton, a personal injury lawyer.
McNulty, who defends insurance companies, did not return phone messages, and a home listing for Timko could not be determined. He lived in Galloway, N.J., at the time of the shooting, but lost his home and his livelihood afterward.
Timko, 44, once worked as a warehouse supervisor, Hardwerk said. She did clerical work for Vanguard, an investment firm in Malvern, until a 2001 car accident left her disabled, she said.
The couple, though never married, were together for about 20 years and had two children before the relationship ended in 2009. They remained cordial, and Timko saw his children regularly, she said.
Timko was driving his daughter home that day from his home in New Jersey, where they had gone swimming and shopped for clothes. The dispute occurred on the bridge, and continued until the shooting on a nearby expressway. Timko managed to bring his car to a stop on the shoulder.
A woman who saw Kaitlyn's face pressed against a rear window stopped to help the child.
Hardwerk does not accuse Timko of routinely driving recklessly, or using profanities, in their children's presence. And there are no custody or child-support fights, and the lawsuit has not caused a rift between them, or between Timko and Kaitlyn, Hardwerk said.
“She knows why I'm doing it. She knows it's for her well-being,” Hardwerk said.
Timko's visits with his children continue _ but at Kaitlyn's request, his girlfriend does the driving, Hardwerk said.
McNulty argues in court papers there is case law to support his position that Timko's actions “are too remote” to have directly caused Kaitlyn's alleged emotional distress.
He noted that in 2000, a state Superior Court ruled against a Philadelphia police officer who lost her job after shooting her husband with her service revolver, then sued a hospital that had misdiagnosed her newborn baby with syphilis.
The officer blamed her dismissal on the misdiagnosis, which led her husband to admit to an affair, and allegedly sent the marriage into a tailspin.
“The Superior Court ... summarized a line of cases which also conclude that the alleged harm to plaintiff is so remote from the actions of the defendant that a defendant cannot be found legally responsible,” McNulty wrote.
Family law expert Mary T. Vidas called Hardwerk's lawsuit “pretty novel.”
Child actors sometimes sue their parents over earnings the parents hold in trust, and minors can sue to emancipate themselves, she said. But a suit that essentially blames the victim of a road-rage shooting may prove an uphill battle, she said.
“There's no question ... the mother and her lawyer had to sue everybody,” said Vidas, a Philadelphia lawyer who serves on the executive board of the American Bar Association's family law section. “The dad probably has no objection, and said, ‘Do whatever you need to do because I can't support her.’”
However, Culleton must prove to a judge or jury that Timko should have foreseen the distress suffered by his daughter.
“I don't know how they're ever going to prove that the conduct was foreseeable, ... that he knew by swerving into traffic that he would have been shot in the head, that somebody was going to grab a gun and shoot him four times,” Vidas said.