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Critically Injured Howell Man Sues New Brunswick for Premises Liability Following Catastrophic Accident

NEW BRUNSWICK – Frank Ozello Jr. was an athletically built 19-year-old college student. But the Howell man’s life literally crashed to a halt early on Sept. 13, 2008, when he was visiting a friend at an off-campus house on Senior Street. Ozello was standing on the second-floor landing of an outdoor stairway when the railing he was leaning on broke under his weight, sending him head first to the cement below. The 210-pound former varsity pitcher and basketball shooting guard was critically injured and put in a medically induced coma.

Ozello’s father called it “a miracle” that his son is able to walk today after suffering brain trauma, cracking six vertebrae, fracturing his skull in three places, and fracturing his sternum.

“In that respect when you look at it, when you look at the whole picture, you’re thankful he’s not in a wheelchair or dead,” Frank Ozello Sr. said. “I mean, that’s what it could have been, so we’ve become very religious. Who else can you thank?”

But the family continues struggling with how to move their lives forward and how to deal with recent setbacks to Frank Jr.’s recovery. The family is suing New Brunswick, charging the city failed to properly inspect the property at 68 Senior St. before the accident exposed several dangerous structural problems.

Among the violations were broken windows, damaged handrails and an outdoor stairway that was in danger of collapsing, city officials said. Inspectors also found the owner had removed ceiling joists to install a spiral staircase from the second floor to the attic, possibly compromising the home’s integrity.

The suit also names as a defendant the landlord of the house, Jason Cyrus of Monroe, whom New Brunswick officials said once lived there but moved out and turned the house into a rental property without notifying the city. Bill Bray, a city spokesman, said Cyrus’ false representation exempted the property from inspections every three years.

Bray said the house has been vacant since inspectors deemed it uninhabitable hours after the accident. He also said the city has taken no action on the property other than to padlock the house.

Cyrus could not be reached for comment. Ozello’s lawyer said he has never been able to reach Cyrus, and that at least 10 letters had been sent to him to notify him about the lawsuit.

Ozello’s lawyers also said the company that provided Cyrus’ homeowners insurance dropped him, and that Cyrus then filed for bankruptcy. It is unclear whether Cyrus has an attorney.

Working his way back

Ozello, a second-year student at Brookdale Community College in Monmouth County, remained for two weeks in the coma after the fall, leaving his family – and police – wondering if he would wake up. Once he did, he spent six weeks at the brain trauma unit at JFK Medical Center in Edison, then received outpatient therapy until May.

“I’m definitely thankful I’m all right,” said Ozello, now 20.

Ozello had a seizure early last September, about a year after the accident, keeping him from reapplying for his driver’s license. He had another seizure in early October, and doctors have increased his medication.

Other recent developments have concerned his family. Tests after the recent seizures showed increased amounts of abnormal brain activity around the injured area, his father said, adding that the family is awaiting the results from more exams.

“They can’t give us any answers right now,” Frank Sr. said. “Basically he’s increased the medicine, keeping his fingers crossed and hoping that’s effective.”

Frank Jr., who otherwise has control of his body and senses, continues to recover. He runs four times a week at the Retro Fitness gym in Howell, works part-time at a Walgreens store, and takes a class on heating, ventilation and air conditioning two nights a week at a vocational school in Freehold.

But losing his driver’s license has stymied Ozello Jr.’s return to normalcy. He can’t return to Brookdale to resume a full course load, and the family is searching for a way to shuttle him from place to place.

He’s still high-spirited, but very upset,” Frank Sr. said. Especially when he was so close to getting back to school and getting back to normal.”

Frank Sr. said he has no idea what the future holds for his family. He hopes the lawsuit will draw attention to what he called a “disgrace” of an inspection system in New Brunswick.

A troubled history

Documents provided by Frank Jr.’s attorney, James Addonizio of Hazlet, show a pattern of disrepair long before Cyrus bought the property in September 2006.

City-issued inspection notices dating to October 2005 advise former owner Bharti Patel of several violations at the time: illegally using the basement as a sleeping area, unapproved renovations, damaged handrails and ceilings in need of painting.

The city issued temporary certificates of code compliance to the owner on Jan. 1, 2006, and Sept. 27, 2006, when the sale took place, between Patel and Cyrus on the conditions that the violations be addressed, according to Division of Inspections paperwork. A notice from the city Department of Administration indicates that the house passed inspection on April, 20, 2007.

A year and five months later, after the accident, the city cited some two dozen violations on the Senior Street property. Aside from the structural problems, inspectors found the basement and attic were illegally converted into bedrooms for extra occupants, and that the home was without smoke detectors and carbon-monoxide alarms.

But Bray, the city spokesman, said the city’s hands were tied. Cyrus showed a recent driver’s license that listed his address as 68 Senior St. when he bought the property, but never notified the city when he moved out and started to rent the house.

With the city believing that Cyrus lived at the home, and with no tenants coming forward about the conditions, Bray said it was “difficult, if not impossible,” for the city to have addressed any of the issues.

‘We had no authority to make the routine inspections and we did not receive any complaints,” Bray said. He later added, “Had someone picked up the phone and told us about the steps and the condition they were in, we would have taken action to have the situation rectified.”

As they wait to see what comes of their lawsuit, the Ozello family still questions how the house was able to pass muster even before it changed hands.

“You go to an off-campus house, and you would think that they’re inspecting them, they’re doing the right thing,” Ozello Sr. said. “But the house was so dilapidated and so bad, that I don’t understand how this guy can close on a house.”

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