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Man Wins $7.9-Million Damage Award : Jury Decides Ex-Employer and Insurer Conspired Against Him

April 23, 1986|MARITA HERNANDEZ | Times Staff Writer

While Raul Rodriguez lay in a hospital intensive care unit recovering from on-the-job injuries that left his body grotesquely mangled, his employer and its insurance carrier conspired to keep Rodriguez from seeking legal help, his attorney argued.

And on Monday, a Compton Superior Court jury unanimously agreed with the attorney, David Drexler, and decided that Rodriguez's former employer, Western Dyeing & Finishing Co. of Compton, must pay $7.9 million in damages.

It was the third monetary award for Rodriguez and his wife, Maria, as a result of the 1976 accident.

Rodriguez, a native of Mexico who had entered the U.S. illegally, had worked for Western Dyeing & Finishing Co. for about four years when he was pulled into a carpet-rolling machine. His arm and leg were mangled and his testicles and penis were torn from his body, Drexler said.

Rodriguez, who was 27 at the time, remained hospitalized under intensive care for about five months and did not hire an attorney until late 1977, well past the one-year statute of limitation for filing a lawsuit in the case.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 24, 1986 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
In a story in Wednesday's editions, The Times erroneously reported the first name of an attorney for a Downey man who was awarded $7.9 million in damages after a 1976 industrial accident. The attorney's name is Peter O'Brien.

In the recent five-week trial, Drexler and co-counsel Pat O'Brien charged that Western and Fireman's Fund Insurance--carrier for both the carpet dyeing company and the carpet roller's manufacturer--conspired to defraud the Rodriguezes.

In a Fireman's interoffice memorandum--which Drexler called "the smoking gun memo"--an insurance adjuster described how Rodriguez's Spanish-speaking foreman, "Hector," had been to the hospital numerous times to visit Rodriguez, who had not yet learned to speak English.

"Apparently the claimant (Rodriguez) appreciates this, and Hector is able to inform the insured (Western) as to what is happening," the memo said.

Adding that the Rodriguezes had been "bombarded" with calls from lawyers seeking to represent them, the memo said that "our insured, via Hector, is trying to prevent this from happening and control is essential in the matter."

Drexler added that Rodriguez was assured that the company would hold his job for him and "take care of everything," if he did not go to a lawyer for help.

The attorney maintained that Rodriguez had a right to expect his employer to act in good faith toward him and not conspire with its insurance company to prevent Rodriguez from suing the manufacturer of the machinery that caused his injuries.

Calling the jury's verdict a "rare and valiant" decision, Drexler said it should send a message to employers that "when they have injured people who work for them in good faith, they better not do anything to strong-arm them or otherwise prevent them from pursuing their legal rights."

Rodriguez, 37, whose status in this country is now legitimate, lives in a modest three-bedroom home in Downey with his wife and their two children. The disabled man said he hopes that his case helps others in similar circumstances.

"The money isn't the main thing, but that people get treated right," he said Tuesday.

More 'Smoking Guns'

Drexler charged Tuesday that "insurance company offices across the state are "loaded with such ('smoking gun') memos."

"I believe you're going to see more and more of this," he said, contending that some employers take advantage of recent immigrants who speak no English and may be easily intimidated, especially when they are in the country illegally.

Fireman's Fund settled with the Rodriguezes for an undisclosed sum in 1984. The initial lawsuit also named Gowin-Card Inc., the Georgia-based manufacturer of the carpet-rolling machinery. Rodriguez was awarded $4 million from that firm.

Drexler said that if Monday's judgment is appealed, it could take several years before the Rodriguezes receive any of the award.

Western's attorney, Daren Johnson, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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