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Published: Tuesday, 3/23/2010

Oregon construction firm told to pay $6.15M

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jaime Kujawa says she has undergone 10 surgeries for her leg and has not been able to work for fear of further injury. Jaime Kujawa says she has undergone 10 surgeries for her leg and has not been able to work for fear of further injury.
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Jaime Kujawa remembers a brief moment, after a motorcycle accident nearly three years ago, when she felt a sense of peace knowing she would survive.

It wasn't until recently, she said, that she again felt a sense of relief.

The first time was when she was lying on the gravel on the side of the road after the motorcycle on which she'd been riding had been struck by another vehicle.

Last week, her sense of relief came after a Lucas County Common Pleas Court jury ruled a local construction company was partly to blame for the accident that caused her injuries and the death of her friend, Frankie Hunt, Jr.

After an eight-day trial, the jury on Thursday returned a $6.15 million verdict against the E.S. Wagner Company of Oregon. "They need to concern themselves with all avenues of safety. It's really everybody's lives in their hands," said Ms. Kujawa, now 27, of Toledo. "I feel a little bit better. I feel justice has prevailed a little bit. I feel the blame has been put in the right place."

She was riding on the back of a motorcycle driven by Mr. Hunt just after 9 p.m. on March 24, 2007. They were riding with friends heading west on West Laskey Road. Authorities said Anne Smith, then 22, was driving a pickup, also westbound on Laskey, when she tried to change lanes and collided with the cycles.

According to attorneys in in the civil case, Ms. Smith was in a turn lane from Laskey onto Burnham Avenue when she was confronted with barricades on Burnham that had the road closed for construction. Because she couldn't turn, she swerved back into the lanes going straight on Laskey.

Mr. Hunt, 32, of Whitehouse died in St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, where he was taken after the crash. The driver of the second motorcycle, David Putman, and his passenger, Jessica Smith, each were treated for injuries.

Attorney Michael Leizerman said the three survivors and Mr. Hunt's estate sued the construction company for not properly barricading the turn lane on Laskey. He said that had that lane been properly closed off, the driver of the pickup would not have been in a situation of running out of road.

The jury agreed, he added.

"The construction company said that this was about a pickup truck and a motorcycle, but we were able to show that they closed Burnham Avenue doing sewer work and they didn't close the left-turn only lane," he said. "You don't just leave a road to nowhere."

After a day of deliberations, the jury awarded $4.25 million to Ms. Kujawa and $1.9 million to Mr. Hunt's estate. They also found that the City of Toledo was not to blame for not properly having signs on the road, as was E.S. Wagner's contention.

Attorney Jim Jeffery of Spengler Nathansson, which represented the construction company, said that the case was not about the seriousness of the injuries. "It had to do with the responsibility aspect of it," he said.

"We were disappointed that the city was not held to any accountability. We believed they had some responsibility," he said. The company cross-sued the city, but the jury found that Toledo did not have liability in the matter.

Mr. Jeffery said the city contracted with E.S. Wagner to do a sewer project on Burnham. He said the company took on the responsibility of blocking off its construction site but that they believed the city was responsible for all appropriate detours and signs.

He added that the company is considering an appeal.

Mr. Leizerman said the jury found that Ms. Smith, now Anne Hackett, had 50 percent of the responsibility. Because of that, the construction company is liable to pay only half of the jury's award.

No attempts will be made to have Ms. Smith pay the rest, he said, adding that her insurance company had already settled with the plaintiffs. Ms. Smith initially was charged with negligent vehicular homicide but pleaded no contest in August, 2007, to reckless operation on a street without due regard, a minor misdemeanor. She was sentenced to pay $228 in fines and court costs.

"We expect to have our roads safe, just like we expect the public to be safe around the construction workers," Mr. Leizerman said. "I hope there's a larger message to Wagner, 'When you do [a project,] do it completely.'"

Ms. Kujawa, who used to work with disabled children at the time of the crash, said she has had 10 surgeries for her leg and has not been able to work for fear of further injury. She said she hopes to soon move forward with her life.

"I can't do the things that I used to be able to do," she said, adding that now, " I just feel like I'm able to move forward a little bit."

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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