Jurors awarded $148 million in damages to a former dance student who was permanently paralyzed as a result of a poorly-maintained pedestrian shelter at a bus stop of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. That amount fell shy of the $175 million plaintiff’s attorneys sought for her injuries, but it was far more than the $30 million defense attorneys suggested to jurors.
According to The Chicago Tribune, the City of Chicago, which is responsible for maintenance at the airport, conceded liability in the case. The only matter to be decided by jurors was how much should be paid in damages.
In Florida, when someone has been injured in any type of accident, there may be grounds to pursue both financial (economic) as well as non-economic damages. Economic damages are calculated by determining the cost of things like medical bills, therapy and lost wages resulting from the incident. Non-economic damages, meanwhile, are intended to cover the kinds of intangible negative impact of an injury. For instance, non-economic damages would cover things like pain and suffering, loss of life enjoyment, permanent disfigurement or loss of consortium.
In some cases, courts will allow plaintiffs (injured parties) to pursue punitive damages. Per F.S. 768.73, punitive damages are available in cases where defendant (wrongdoer) was grossly negligent. According to the statute, punitive damages cannot exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant, or the sum of $500,000. However, if a finder of fact (i.e., a jury) determines wrongful conduct was solely motivated by financial gain, plaintiffs may obtain four times the amount of compensatory damages, or up to $2 million. When a finder of fact determines defendant had specific intent to harm claimant, there is no cap on punitive damages.
The issue of damages is more complicated when the defendant is a government agency. Florida law limits compensation paid by government agencies to $200,000, regardless of the long-term costs of an injury – even when the agency agrees to pay more. The only exception occurs when state legislators and the governor approve a claims bill. However, only very serious cases involving catastrophic injuries are ever heard.
In the case out of Chicago, city officials said insurers – not taxpayers – will foot the bill for the damage award. It is the largest verdict against that city in a personal injury lawsuit.
The Tribute reports the incident occurred in the summer of 2015. Plaintiff, her mother and sister were just outside the airport, on street-level, where they had just returned from purchasing dresses for an upcoming wedding. A storm blew into the area where the women were waiting to be picked up. Suddenly, the pedestrian shelter under which they were standing came loose. It fell on top of plaintiff, who suffered a severed spinal cord. She was paralyzed from the waist down. While she had previously lived on her own and was attending college, she had no choice after the incident but to move back in with her father and leave school.
An investigation into the incident determined the shelter was missing several key bolts. In fact, there were a number of similar shelters at the airport that were improperly maintained as well, with issues that included missing bolts, broken brackets and corroded parts.
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Jury awards $148 million to woman paralyzed after O’Hare bus shelter collapse, Aug. 24, 2017, By Stephen Schmadeke and Mary Wisniewski, The Chicago Tribune
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