August 15, 2003

Inquirer: Woman settle suit over gun accident

Bar, woman settle suit over gun accident

Sandy Peirson of Kennett Square, blinded by shootings 30 years apart, plans to have surgery to try to regain some of her sight.


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Sandy Peirson, who lost one eye and then the other in separate gun accidents 30 years apart, will not need to plead her negligence case to a Chester County jury.

A confidential settlement was reached in Peirson’s civil suit against the Birch Inn, a Kennett Square tavern where Peirson was socializing on Nov. 11, 2001, when a gun went off, destroying her right eye. The trial had been scheduled to start today in front of Chester County Court Judge Jacqueline C. Cody.

Peirson, 43, of Kennett Square, had lost the sight in her left eye in a childhood accident involving a BB gun.

Peirson said she was overcome with emotion when she learned of the agreement, reached late Friday afternoon.

“I just sat down and cried and cried and cried,” she said. “It’s hard to explain, but for almost two years, I’ve had nothing but darkness; now I have something to live for.”

Peirson, who says she has struggled physically and emotionally with her blindness, fervently hopes to recover some of her sight through an operation to be performed at the Dobelle Institute in Portugal.

She pins those hopes on a surgical procedure using computers that has given 13 recipients enough vision to maintain their independence, according to the institute’s Web site.

The operation, which has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, costs about $100,000 plus expenses for travel to and from Portugal, lodging, and recovery. For Peirson, the procedure was out of reach financially until Friday.

Peirson’s attorneys, Stanley E. Luongo Jr. and Thomas B. Bellwoar, said they could not disclose the settlement amount because of a confidentiality clause. They did say Peirson would be able to pursue the surgery.

“It’s a figure that will take care of her for the rest of her life,” Bellwoar said. “That is what we were looking for, and that is what she needed.”

According to court documents, the Birch Inn, which is owned by Louis J. Caputo Jr. and Jeffrey D. Guest, made a $250,000 offer in June, which was rejected.

Although Peirson had been attempting to live alone, physical and financial limitations forced her to move back in with her mother, Carleen Witt, 62, who went back to work to help support her daughter.

“I’m so relieved,” Witt said. “It’s just starting to sink in.”

Police were called to the Birch Inn at 10:10 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2001, in response to a report of a shooting. Three people were listed as victims in the police report: Peirson, Cesar Solis-Arreola, who fired the shot, and his brother, Guillermo Solis.

According to police and witnesses, Solis-Arreola, 33, of Downingtown, fired a .38-caliber handgun after repeatedly showing it off to other people at the bar. The bullet hit him in the hand, grazed his brother’s ear, and then struck Peirson in the right eye.

Solis-Arreola was sentenced on Jan. 17 to 11 1/2 to 23 months in prison.

In the civil suit, Solis-Arreola, the Birch Inn, and its owners were accused of negligent, careless and reckless conduct.

Solis-Arreola, deemed insolvent by lawyers connected to the case, did not participate in the litigation. He is incarcerated until at least December at Chester County Prison, according to court records.

Attorneys Timothy Rayne and Harry J. DiDonato, who represented Caputo and Guest, argued that their clients were not responsible as individuals because the tavern is controlled by a corporation, Birch Inn Inc. Cody, the judge, denied a motion in June to dismiss them from the case.

According to court documents, Birch Inn Inc. is insured with Penn-American Insurance Co., which filed a separate action against the tavern.

During a pretrial hearing on Thursday, attorney Wendy H. Koch, representing Penn-American, argued that the Birch Inn was “negligent, careless and reckless” for failing to prevent an assault and that, consequently, the insurance firm had no obligation to defend the tavern.

The judge had not ruled on that motion when the settlement occurred.

Both Peirson and Witt said that even though they were ready for a trial, they were relieved it was avoided.

Peirson said she had many people to thank for supporting her during the litigation, especially the Kennett Square police and her attorneys, all of whom “went beyond the call of duty.”

She said the first thing she did on Saturday was call William Dobelle, the physician who pioneered the artificial-vision surgery.

“I’m the blind girl from Kennett Square,” she said she told him. “I’m ready for you.”

Posted In: Personal Injury