Aunt who sued nephew over exuberant hug: It's a claim against the insurance company, nothing more

The Internet had already declared this woman to be History’s Greatest Monster by the time I wrote about her yesterday (“the Auntie Christ,” the Daily News calls her), but I feel guilty for chipping in now that she’s professing almost total innocence in what’s happening. This isn’t about shaking down her sweet little nephew for being too excited to see her, she says, it’s about getting his dad’s homeowner’s insurance to help cover medical bills that have now reached six figures after two separate surgeries on her wrist. The kid is named as the defendant in the suit only because that’s what Connecticut law requires.

“Our client was very reluctant to pursue this case,” her lawyers insist, “but in the end she had no choice but to sue the minor defendant directly to get her bills paid.” Connell herself spoke to CNN about it:

“This was meant to be a simple homeowners insurance case,” she said. “Connecticut law is such that I was advised by counsel that this is the way a suit is meant to be worded.”…

“I adore this child. I would never want to hurt him. He would never want to hurt me,” she told CNN.

The boy refers to Connell as his aunt, although she said he is the son of her cousin. The family remains close. Just a few weeks ago, Connell said, she took the boy out shopping for his Halloween costume.

“It’s amazing the power that the Internet has that something can go viral, completely out of context,” she said. “I’m certainly not trying to retire to some villa in the south of France. I’m simply trying to pay off my medical bills.”

The most heartwrenching part of the original story was the idea that Connell would gladly risk her relationship with her adoring nephew to get some cold hard cash. Assuming she’s telling the truth about taking him shopping for Halloween, though, there’s no truth to that part of it. They remain close. As for the legal niceties of the lawsuit, is it accurate that she had no choice but to sue her nephew in order to drag the insurance company into court? Well … yeah, according to legal experts who spoke to the Guardian:

This is “perfectly plausible”, said Tom Baker, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specialises in insurance law. He told the Guardian this kind of suit is a common occurrence when someone finds themselves with medical bills not covered by medical insurance, who might be able to be covered under homeowners insurance if liability could be proved.

“I get why this would be an internet phenomenon,” he said, “but it doesn’t sound to me like anything other than someone following the rules … One must question why these are the rules, but it’s hard to blame her. You go into the legal system, get told what to do, all of a sudden you get flamed online. I’d be upset if I were her.”…

The $127,000 amount that seemed at first glance so punitive might just have been an amount set by the homeowners insurance coverage, according to Professor Peter Kochenburger, a specialist in insurance and consumer law at the University of Connecticut. It is plausible, he said, that Connell’s health insurance provider, if she has one, might have mandated her to sue to recoup their own costs – a process known as “subrogation”.

One thing that struck me as weird in the original story about the suit was how willing Connell was to note that her nephew had greeted her sweetly before the fateful hug. A plaintiff with a grudge against the defendant would be less forthcoming about him bounding towards her with excitement and exclaiming how much he loved her, if only so as not to make the jury well disposed towards the defense. She acknowledged it, though, doubtless realizing as she did that it meant her suit would be more likely to fail. Maybe she just didn’t have the heart to make her beloved nephew into the bad guy, even though it wouldn’t have cost him anything had she won.

Probably too late to turn back the Internet lynch mob in noting all that, but here’s hoping. I said “almost” total innocence up top, incidentally, because there remains the fact that she’s accusing the kid of having done wrong. He’s a sweetie and he didn’t mean to do harm, she admits, but he’s guilty of negligence. Is he? Should a hypothetical “reasonable eight-year-old” have known that a leaping hug into the arms of your dear aunt is dangerous? He didn’t drop-kick her. It was a hug and it ended up in a freak injury. What’s negligent about that?