Taconic Victims' Lawyer: 'Don't Call It an Accident'

Attorney for crash victims "categorically" rejects stroke-like attack theory.

ByLee Ferran via via logo
August 06, 2009, 7:18 PM

Aug. 12, 2009— -- The lawyer for the family of two of the eight people killed in the horrific crash on New York's Taconic State Parkway "categorically" rejected the idea that the fatal crash was caused by a stroke-like attack or other medical emergency suffered by the wrong-way driver, Diane Schuler.

"This is a killing. Don't call it an accident," Irving Anolik, attorney for the Bastardi family who lost a father and son in the wreck, told "Good Morning America." Anolik said that any medical condition theories are "at war with the autopsy report, with the blood analysis, with the whole panorama of things that surround this killing."

With five children in her car, police say Schuler drove nearly two miles into oncoming traffic on the Taconic until she slammed head-on into an SUV carrying Guy Bastardi, his father Michael Bastardi as well as family friend Daniel Longo. All three men were killed along with Schuler, her 2-year-old daughter and three nieces, none of whom were over 9 years old. The sole survivor of the July 26 crash, Schuler's 5-year-old son, was released from the hospital Monday.

According to autopsy and toxicology reports, Schuler had been driving with more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in her system -- about 10 drinks were in her stomach -- and had traces of marijuana in her system. A vodka bottle was found at the crash site. Following the reports, Schuler's husband, Daniel Schuler, spoke out, claiming his wife was not a drinker and had left the campground where the roadtrip started completely sober.

"I don't say that the report is accurate or not accurate," the Schuler's lawyer, Dominic Barbara, told "Good Morning America's" Chris Cuomo last week referring to the toxicology report. "What I say is that none of this case is logical."

"Something medical had to have happened," Barbara said in press conference last week.

Barbara pinned the crash on a stroke caused by an underlying diabetes condition. Since, Barbara and Daniel Schuler have said its possible Diane Schuler suffered a transient ischemic attack, or TIA, a mild stroke-like condition that can cause disorientation. Experts told ABCNews.com such an attack is unlikely.

"This is not typical presentation for TIAs," Dr. Larry Goldstein, director of the Center for Cerebrovascular Disease at Duke University said. "There are many, many other potential causes to have an alteration of behavior. TIA would not be in my top three causes."

"Everything is possible, but [TIA's are] less likely, as they are brief," Dr. Pierre Fayad, director of the Stroke Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center said.

The Bastardi family is "not coping ... well," Anolik said.

"But they're keeping a stiff upper lip when they have to meet people. You wouldn't believe they were so saddened. But I know so well and have seen them under all circumstances ... they're traumatized," he said.

The Bastardis reportedly accepted an invitation by the Hances, the family of the three little girls killed in the crash, to grieve together, New York's The Journal News reported.

"[The Hances' attorney] said the Hance family is in deep mourning because they lost their young children," Anolik told The News Journal. "He said on behalf of the Hance family, at some future time, would it be possible for the families to exchange condolences and mourn."

Diane Schuler's brother and father of the three girls killed in the wreck, Warren Hance, is reportedly not speaking with Daniel Schuler.

"We would never knowingly allow our daughters to travel with someone who might jeopardize their safety," Hance family spokesman Stephen Spagnulo said on behalf of the family.

Schuler Family: 'This Is Not the Woman They Know'

Experts don't agree with Barbara's proposition that a medical condition was the cause of the wreck.

"If they found elevated alcohol levels in her blood, she must have ingested it," said Fayad. "Unfortunately, alcoholism and drug addiction are often missed or underestimated by family members."

Alcoholism, which affects 9.6 million people in the United States, disproportionately affects men more than women -- 6.9 million men compared with 2.5 million women, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism -- but women are uniquely susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

With less water in their bodies, women take longer than men to break down the toxic compounds in alcohol, with the result that the same amount of alcohol exposes a woman to more alcohol for longer periods of time than for a man.

And the associated shame and stigma of the disease makes it less likely that an alcoholic would seek help from family members or seek professional treatment.

Still, Daniel Schuler insisted during the news conference that he had never seen his wife drunk and that "she was the perfect wife."

"We had an occasional pina colada at a family barbecue," Jay Schuler, the wife of Daniel Schuler's brother, said on "GMA" last week. "She was meticulous, safe, I trusted her with my son when I left the country ... those three girls before her own children were her life."

"This is absolutely not the woman they know," she said. "[Not] who I trusted my children with."

Barbara reiterated that "the family believes she did not ingest," but if that belief proves false, they want to know "what may have caused her to ingest if she did."

Last week, Barbara suggested that Schuler may have ingested alcohol in an attempt to raise a low blood sugar level, a theory experts said demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both diabetes and stroke.

"Blaming the accident on a stroke preceding it is possible, like anything else, but not plausible," Fayad said. "Having high or low blood sugar acutely does not cause a stroke. It is the long term effect of diabetes that increases the risk of stroke."

Low blood sugar can mimic stroke. The brain is reliant on a consistent supply of sugar and oxygen from the blood, without which it may begin to lose function.

But a diabetic person's blood sugar level is higher than normal because it is not well regulated by insulin. Left untreated, as Diane Schuler's type 2 diabetes condition was, blood sugar will remain high.

Without proper medical controls, a diabetic person's blood sugar can increase enough to put the body in a crisis situation. Extra sugar seeps into the urine, drawing water along with it. The body becomes dehydrated and blood potassium levels climb, causing the brain and other vital organs to suffer.

Similarly, alcohol is a diuretic that draws water out of the body, causing dehydration, and can compound the effects of elevated blood sugar.

Searching for Answers in Taconic Crash

Fayed pointed out that infections, like the abscess in Schuler's mouth that the family described earlier in the week, can also elevate the blood sugar and precipitate a crisis situation.

"There is no way that having a stroke or the diabetes prompted her to drink. There is no medical explanation that would explain that assertion," said Dr. Aman Patel, director of the Neurosurgery Residency Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

And Schuler's prolonged erratic driving suggested that she was not affected by a stroke. During the four hours she was on the road, driving home from the family's vacation campsite with her two children and three nieces, Barbara said Schuler crossed the median on the Taconic State Parkway three times and state police received a number of calls reporting her.

"A stroke ... except in extraordinarily rare situations, would not cause a person to drive erratically for long distances," Good said. "The attorney's argument has no validity, in my opinion."

"Do you think we'd be doing this if we thought she was an alcoholic?" Barbara asked today.

As the family searches for answers, Jay Schuler said that Shuler's 5-year-old son Bryan is "doing well."

"He is going to be OK, but it's going to take a little time."

She also sent a message from the Schulers to the family of the other victims of the crash.

"They are in our prayers," she said.

ABC News' Dan Childs contributed to this report.

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