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Judge Awards $55 Million in Orange County Auto Accident Case

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Federal government acknowledges liability for injuries caused by a federal employee who ran a red light.

In what is said to be the largest personal injury award in Orange County history, a federal judge has awarded $55 million to a young Costa Mesa girl who was paralyzed in a fiery 2002 crash caused by a federal employee who ran a red light. According to an article in The Orange County Register, a federal government spokesman has said the decision will not be appealed and that the government acknowledges its liability in the incident.

Leilani Gutierrez was only 4 years old when the accident occurred. She was riding in the back seat snugly placed and buckled up in a car seat after a trip with her mother, June, to South Coast Plaza, according to news reports. The Register article states that Michael Leinert, an Army employee who was in the area on business, ran a red light broad siding Gutierrez’s Chevy Suburban.

The decision came after an eight-day trial. The case was decided by a federal judge instead of a jury. According to the Register article, the judge awarded a little over $1 million to the mother and $54 million to the girl of which $23 million will go toward medical bills and $31 million toward compensatory damages. The award does not include punitive damages.

This story is a clarion call for all of us to follow traffic rules. According to National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, in 2002 as many as 207,000 crashes, 178,000 injuries and 921 fatalities were attributed to red light running in the United States. Between 1992 and 2000, fatal motor crashes at traffic signals increased 19 percent, outpacing the rise in all fatal crashes. And public costs exceed $14 billion a year!

Red light cameras are apparently helping. According to the same group, a 2005 Orange County, California government report found that one year after red light camera installation, accidents dropped by 46.7 percent in Garden Grove, 28.2 percent in Costa Mesa, 16.2 percent in Santa Ana, 12.1 percent in San Juan Capistrano and 5.7 percent in Fullerton.
Leilani, who is now 9, attends elementary school, requires 24-hour care and relies on a ventilator to breathe. What a life for the little girl and what a tragedy for the family! The money will help for the care, medical bills and maintenance, but as the plaintiff’s attorney put it to the newspaper: “This award is because (Leilani) deserves it, I’m afraid. She earned it in the worst possible way.”

I couldn’t agree more. I am sure the family would take their normal, giggling, playing daughter running around with her pigtails bouncing up and down – rather than the cold, hard cash. Only about a million was awarded to the parents. The remainder will go to the child and her needs and will be governed by the courts until she is an adult. The court will also determine the appropriate attorney’s fees for the courageous law firm that pursued this matter on their behalf.

The fact that this case was heard by a judge without a jury, that the federal government acknowledged liability and their spokesperson stated that the federal government will not appeal tells me that the parties to the lawsuit wanted an independent and knowledgeable third party to determine the fair amount of compensation for Leilani Gutierrez and her parents. It also tells me that the government’s attorneys have as much respect for the Gutierrez’s attorneys as I do. They did a fine job for the family.

My hats off to all the parties, the decision makers, our federal government, the attorneys, the judge and our system of government for the orderly and just resolution of Leilani’s claim.

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