Family fighting city over accident award

Baltimore won't pay for ambulance crash

June 18, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Almost every day, Anne Maria Duffy feels searing pain radiate from her hips to her back and left leg.

She no longer rides horses or skis, and one recent weekday, she forgot to take her two pre-teen daughters to their swimming lesson. She has left her job as a $60,000-a-year nursing specialist and doubts she'll be able to return.

Without her income, she and her husband, Vincent Duffy, a public school elementary teacher, worry that they'll lose their stone and wood "dream house" on 10 acres in rural Carroll County.

Duffy's physical, mental and financial problems are part of the aftermath of an accident four years ago in which her car was struck by a Baltimore ambulance with faulty brakes that was speeding through a red light. It left her with multiple pelvis fractures and a mild brain injury.

"It's not ever going to be back to where I was," Duffy, 36, said of her condition.

Compounding Duffy's torment is her protracted and often bit- ter legal battle with the city over compensation. Even though there's no dispute about who was at fault, the city is citing state laws that limit governmental liability in an attempt to restrict its payment to Duffy to $20,000, a a small fraction of her costs in lost wages and medical expenses.

Late last month, a Baltimore circuit judge ordered the city to pay Duffy $200,000, the maximum allowable under negligence lawsuits involving city workers, but some $50,000 less than what the collision has cost her.

This month, the city filed a notice of appeal of $180,000 of the award, contending that the city should be insulated from suits involving ambulance service because of governmental immunity.

The Duffys are upset about state law limiting the liability of local governments and their workers. This month, in an unrelated suit involving the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, the state's highest court ruled that that limit does not apply in all cases.

They are also upset over a legal fight that their attorney called a "complete nightmare" and the city's top attorney described as "convoluted."

It is a case marked by the destruction of relevant records, an unusual hearing in which counsels for both sides were called as witnesses and by intimations of improper tactics by city attorneys - and one that threatens to drag on for many more months on appeal.

"There's so many levels of frustration it's ridiculous," Vincent Duffy said. "The law protects the government; it doesn't protect the citizens."

City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said he recognized the severity of Duffy's injuries and empathized with her plight. But he said he was obligated to vigorously pursue the case on appeal.

"While you feel a certain sense of emotion, as a lawyer you have to maximize the city's position and use the legal principles available to you," he said. "It's almost malpractice not to. It's as simple as that."

The event that created a demarcation line in Duffy's life occurred at 7:27 on a Saturday morning in March 1996.

She had just left her job as a clinical coordinator in the neonatal intensive care unit at Sinai Hospital in Northwest Baltimore. She was driving through the intersection of West Northern Parkway and Preakness Way in her 1990 Toyota when her car was broadsided, on the driver's side, by a city ambulance taking a patient with a hip fracture to Sinai.

Her car, which was catapulted 100 feet and came to a stop at a median strip, was so badly mangled that rescue workers had to cut it apart to remove her.

Duffy, according to depositions from her doctors, suffered the most severe kind of pelvic injury possible, shattering the bone in several places and causing it to become permanently misaligned. She also suffered permanent brain damage affecting her memory, concentration and ability to process information, the result of her brain being jostled by the severity of the impact.

She spent three weeks in the hospital, followed by months of rehabilitation. She tried to return to work part time, but she couldn't handle the physical strain of moving medical equipment or the mental strain of working in a busy unit filled with critically ill infants.

In April, she took an indefinite leave of absence from her job.

"If I have more than two or three things happening, I start losing track," she said. "I was totally stressed out trying to keep up."

Duffy said she is hopeful she will eventually be able to return to work in some capacity but said, "I'm sure I'm not going to work in a hospital environment."

While Duffy was in the hospital and in rehabilitation, an investigation by the Fire Department, which has responsibility for city ambulances, concluded that the accident could have been prevented by the ambulance driver. It said the driver was traveling at a "very high rate of speed" and had violated departmental regulations by not stopping at a red light.

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