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Farmers To Pay Large Jury Verdict

A traffic collision that left a Newport Beach woman irreparably brain-damaged resulted in a $51-million personal-injury judgment against Children's Hospital of Orange County and an associated thrift outfit Thursday--possibly the largest such award ever in Orange County, lawyers said.

The verdict stems from a 1999 Irvine accident in which the driver of a CHOC Thrift Store truck ran a red light while reading a map and broadsided Rebecca Burch's Honda.

Burch, who is now 22, suffered stroke-like brain injuries that left her unable to control her own body and dependent on round-the- clock nursing care. About half the jury award is meant to cover past and future medical bills, while the other half is intended to be compensation for pain and suffering.

Burch's lawyer, Larry Grassini, said the brain injury was particularly "cruel" because of its effect on her memory. Burch has virtually no short-term memory, which makes it extraordinarily difficult for her to communicate. Still, she has full recall of her life prior to the accident, memories of when she was a successful student and athlete at Irvine Valley College. Because of this, she is in a constant state of despair over her current condition, Grassini and Burch's father said.

"Becky is the definition of pain and suffering," said Jeff Burch. "She's not happy with her life, and she really doesn't want to live. I'm not so sure I would either. In fact, I am sure."

The suit was filed against both the hospital and CHOC Thrift Stores, which are separate corporate entities. A hospital spokeswoman said a substantial amount of the award would be paid by the hospital's insurer, Farmers Insurance. She also said she was unaware of any plans to appeal the decision.

"All of us at the hospital are deeply saddened by this tragic accident," said spokeswoman Jan Lansing. "We respect the verdict of the jury, and our hearts go out to Rebecca and her family. We take full responsibility for the accident."

Thursday's verdict does not come close to the state's largest personal-injury award, which came in 1999 when a Los Angeles jury ordered General Motors to pay a family more than $1 billion in punitive damages after a car fire. However, attorneys said Thursday's judgment was notable because of the amount of compensation for pain and suffering.

"I would say this has got to be one of the highest, if not the highest ever, in Orange County," said Wylie Aitken, one of the county's most prominent personal-injury lawyers. "This is a bold statement by the jury. It puts a premium on quality of life, something that's rarely seen."

Also notable is the fact that large punitive awards are far more likely to be overturned or reduced than are compensatory awards, said John H. Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Assn. of California.

The accident occurred at Jamboree Road and University Drive as Burch drove to lunch from school. She was taken by helicopter to a hospital where she spent 10 months in a coma.

Burch was in her second year at the community college and was planning to transfer to UC Irvine. She had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian, her family said.

The defendants had offered to settle the case for $25 million, but Burch's family said that sum was inadequate.

"I felt it was unjust," Jeff Burch said. "I have a daughter with a catastrophic, permanently life-destroying injury. She can't eat on her own, brush her teeth on her own or walk. She speaks with great difficulty and only in a muffle. I felt she should be taken care of for
the rest of her life."


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