Murder Victim's Family Wins $9 Million Claim

, The Connecticut Law Tribune


Angelo Ziotas
Angelo Ziotas

Even before Otto was convicted of the murder, Smith's estate filed civil lawsuits against Otto and Otto's ex-wife. In the claim against Otto, the estate alleged the intentional tort of wrongful death. In the case against Kathleen Otto, they alleged fraudulent transfers of cash and property to her from her husband after the killing. Kathleen Otto denies the allegations.

Last year, the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision attaching about $550,000 worth of Kathleen Otto's assets in case Smith's family wins the lawsuit alleging fraudulent transfers.

Liability in the civil case against Kenneth Otto was decided Sept. 30. In early November, the two sides then had a hearing on damages before Judge Trial Referee Richard Rittenband. The former Superior Court judge was tasked with valuing the economic damages and factoring in Smith's loss of life's enjoyment due to her early death.

In a ruling released in late November, Rittenband awarded the estate $9,158,233.

Of that, roughly $6.8 million was for non-economic damages. Rittenband awarded these damages at a rate of $10,000 per month, after estimating that Smith would have lived 57 more years. Rittenband also awarded nearly $1 million in punitive damages. Explaining the award for loss of life's enjoyrment, Rittenband wrote that the victim "was fascinated with beauty and fashion, loved to walk, play games and go shopping, but above all else, her interaction with her family was paramount."

As for economic damages, Rittenband concluded that Smith would not remain a stripper but would fulfill her goal of being a hairdresser. A plaintiff's expert witness, Gary Crakes, a Southern Connecticut State University economics professor, estimated that Smith would earn $1.3 million over her lifetime in that profession. Rittenband went with that number for economic damages, noting that Smith had already been styling hair for acquaintances on an informal basis and hoped to get a certificate to do so commercially.

"Of course, she may have during her lifetime changed occupations and earned more but at this point, the only reasonable evaluation has to be as a hairdresser," wrote Rittenband.

Brown, one of Otto's lawyers, said judges and juries have a difficult time putting a dollar value on the loss of a life. He was not surprised by the nearly $9.2 million total. Brown said there is a "correlation with damages" when the circumstances surrounding the case particularly offend the trier of fact, "not to mention the pain and suffering that occurred before death."

Ziotas, the Stamford trial lawyer, whose practice includes wrongful death cases, said it's not unusual for a judge to award damages based on a career that a victim had aspirations for but hadn't actually started. He noted that an aspiring hairdresser does not require a lot of schooling. He said a court would be less likely to award money for a career that required extensive education, such as a medical doctor.

The real question, said Ziotas, is whether the plaintiffs will ever recover any of the award.

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