$4.5 million settlement reached in car-truck crash HOWARD COUNTY

October 30, 1992|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

Margaret Pendelton of Columbia hopes others will learn from her paralyzed daughter's tragedy.

Her daughter, Stephanie Gianfagna, was left paralyzed and unable to speak after her car was struck by a Chevrolet Blazer with a jacked-up suspension three years ago in Simpsonsville.

Yesterday, Ms. Gianfagna and her mother received $4.5 million in an out-of-court settlement reached with the four defendants they claim were responsible for the accident in a Howard Circuit Court civil suit.

Mrs. Pendelton said she believes the accident -- and the lawsuit that followed -- have brought attention to the dangers of vehicles jacked up for little more than cosmetic reasons.

"After the massive amount of damage that has been done to all of the lives involved here, it just seems pointless to me," said Mrs. Pendelton, of the 6800 block of Pyramid Road.

Ms. Pendelton and Ms. Gianfagna filed suit against four defendants, seeking $83 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The plaintiffs claimed the defendants were negligent in permitting the Blazer to operate with the lift kit.

Meanwhile, attorneys who represented the women said they will begin working to change the law that permits such vehicles as the one that struck Ms. Gianfagna on Maryland roads.

Her small Chevrolet Sprint was struck by a jacked-up Blazer, whose chassis glided over the car's hood and struck the passenger compartment. The collision caused the pillar that supports the car's roof to strike Ms. Gianfagna in the head.

Ms. Gianfagna, then 21, was on her way home from nursing school at the University of Maryland at the time of the Dec. 8, 1989, accident on Guilford Road in Simpsonville. She was wearing a seat belt, and both vehicles were traveling slowly on the snow-covered road.

Her lawyers said she would have walked away from the accident, had it not been for the jacked-up suspension of the Blazer.

The Blazer was equipped with a "lift kit" that increased its height by 4 inches. The vehicle's bumper was about 26 inches from the ground -- within 2 inches of the state limit.

Although such vehicles are legal, they are not safe, claimed attorneys representing Ms. Gianfagna and her mother.

"I'm going to do anything I can to get the state to do something about these vehicles," said attorney Henry Dugan of Baltimore. "I really don't want to see another Stephanie out there."

Mr. Dugan said he plans to work with the State Bar Association to submit legislation to the General Assembly to lower the maximum allowable height of bumpers.

Mrs. Pendelton said she would like to join the fight against the jacked-up vehicles -- but not for now, because much of her time goes to caring for her daughter.

"I do feel there are a lot of battles to be fought," said Mrs. Pendelton. "But we're so involved in this battle that the larger battles come later."

The defendants were Jeffrey Allen Wetzel, a Woodbine man who was driving the Blazer at the time of the accident, and J.A. Toyota Inc., owner of Antwerpen's Toyota Village, the Clarksville dealership where Mr. Wetzel bought the vehicle.

The suit also named Rugged Trail Inc. and Eastern Off-Road Equipment Inc., two Pennsylvania companies that manufactured and sold the lift kit used to jack up the vehicle.

The parties settled the suit one week into a trial before Circuit Judge Dennis Sweeney and a jury of nine women and three men. The settlement was reached on the day Ms. Gianfagna was to be brought into the courtroom. Specific details of the settlement were not released.

After the settlement was announced, S. Todd Willson, a Baltimore attorney for Rugged Trail and Eastern Off-Road, maintained that his clients were not responsible for the accident.

"It's a tragic event, but we were just not responsible," Mr. Willson said. "We were within the law and it was a safe product."

During court proceedings, Mr. Willson blamed Mr. Wetzel, who installed four old tires -- including two bald ones -- and sold the new ones that came with the vehicle. Mr. Wetzel also did not activate the Blazer's four-wheel-drive system before the accident, despite snowy conditions.

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