Posted on May 25, 2006
Jury OKs $26 million for woman paralyzed in crash
Sheriff's officer's car hit her vehicle in 2001
By Mickey Ciokajlo
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 25, 2006
A Cook County jury has awarded more than $26 million to a woman who was rendered a quadriplegic after a Cook County sheriff's officer's patrol car collided with her vehicle in the south suburbs five years ago.
Sheriff Michael Sheahan on Wednesday criticized the judge in the case, Richard Elrod, himself a former sheriff, for barring the jury from hearing evidence that the woman had been drinking before the crash.
County officials vowed to appeal the verdict, which was reached late Tuesday, if the judge denies their attempts to have the award reduced or for a new trial. If it stands, the verdict would be one of the largest monetary awards resulting from a lawsuit against Cook County.
Last October, the county approved a $35 million medical malpractice settlement for an incident at Oak Forest Hospital. In 1999, the county agreed to pay $36 million to settle lawsuits brought by the Ford Heights Four, men wrongfully convicted in a 1978 double murder.
"We're exploring several post-trial options, including asking the judge for a reduction in the verdict or a new trial. Failing those, we will appeal," said John Gorman, spokesman for the Cook County state's attorney's office.
On Friday, the county reached a $5.75 million settlement with the family of Delia Grimmett, the passenger in the vehicle who was killed in the crash.
Jurors awarded driver Margaret Petraski $26.88 million, court records show.
In a written statement, Sheahan blasted Elrod for refusing to allow evidence into trial that Petraski had been drinking. According to Sheahan, a blood test taken at a hospital more than an hour after the crash showed Petraski's blood-alcohol content was 0.116 percent, over the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent.
"In my 35 years of law enforcement experience, I've never heard of a judge barring evidence of drinking and driving in an auto accident case," said Sheahan, who plans to retire in December after four terms as sheriff. "This ruling is an outrage, and we are confident the Appellate Court will protect the taxpayers and reverse the decision."
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Elrod said he couldn't comment on the case. Before becoming a judge 18 years ago, Elrod served as Cook County sheriff from 1970 to 1986.
Paul Salzetta, Petraski's lawyer, said the evidence of Petraski's blood-alcohol level was not allowed in the trial because it was unreliable. Salzetta said the process used at the hospital for testing Petraski's blood is known to elevate the reading.
Two defense experts could not say that Petraski's blood-alcohol level was over the legal limit at the time of the crash, the lawyer said. The experts also could not say that her blood-alcohol level contributed to the crash, said Salzetta, noting Petraski was turning left with a green arrow.
Salzetta acknowledged that Petraski, Grimmett and another person split a pitcher of beer hours earlier at an Irish festival in Oak Lawn.
Salzetta said no one knows where Petraski and Grimmett, both of Chicago, were for five hours before the crash, which occurred at 2:25 a.m. May 28, 2001, at Midlothian Turnpike and Central Avenue, near Midlothian.
Sheriff's Officer Debra Thedos was responding to a call when she ran a red light while driving in excess of 70 m.p.h., Salzetta said.
Petraski, a 58-year-old widow with two grown children, lives in a care facility and requires 24-hour care. She cannot speak and is fed through a tube in her stomach.
Salzetta said her past and future medical expenses were established to be $11 million.
Thedos was suspended for 10 days and still works for the sheriff. She couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.