SANTA ANA — When Halina Douglas and her family gathered at a Sizzler's restaurant five years ago to celebrate her certification as a paralegal assistant, it was a poignant measure of how far she had come from the days when she was forced to flee war-torn Ukraine during World War II.
But Douglas' moment of victory turned to disaster when a large menu sign fell from the wall and slammed into her head. After hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, Douglas settled a court case last year with Sizzler and the sign manufacturer for $550,000.
In an unusual move this week, Douglas asked an Orange County Superior Court judge to set aside the settlement, saying the sign injury had left her mentally incompetent when she agreed to accept the deal.
Daniel A. Leipold, an Orange attorney who represented Sizzler at the civil trial, said Wednesday he was surprised by Douglas' action.
"This was a bitterly fought matter," said Leipold, noting that he has not seen the new lawsuit. "It comes as a total surprise to me because I never had any indication in my mind that she was mentally incompetent nor did I get any hint that she was not adequately represented by counsel."
Douglas declined to be interviewed, but her lawyers say the 51-year-old Laguna Niguel resident is not satisfied with her settlement because she was not mentally stable and it is simply not enough to cover her mounting medical bills.
"The sign falling on her head has forever changed her life from a normal human being to a woman with permanent brain damage," said Thomas A. Burton, a Pleasanton lawyer who is representing Douglas. "This is exactly what she has been fearful of--the medical bills are piling up without any cessation."
Douglas was rushed to Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo immediately after the accident in August, 1988. She received nine stitches to close a wound in her head, but doctors later discovered that the former straight-A student had "extreme difficulty" in reading comprehension," the lawsuit states.
She frequently became lost "when driving in familiar areas around her home and . . . (wanders aimlessly) about her house without being able to organize or plan household activities," the lawsuit states about the mother of two.
Douglas' childhood in the war-torn Ukraine has played a key part in the case because attorneys for the restaurant argued in the civil case that Douglas' mental problems are caused in part by post-traumatic stress from her World War II experiences.
Douglas was only a year old when German soldiers raided her family farm in a rural section of the Ukraine. Her father died in a battle with the Germans and Douglas' 13-year-old brother was among teen-age boys trained to become members of the Third Reich.
Douglas, two of her brothers and her mother spent 10 years in camps throughout Europe until her family emigrated to Iowa in the late 1950s. Three years ago, Douglas and her lost brother, the soldier, were reunited at Los Angeles International Airport after 45 years.
Court records show that Douglas' attorney, Robert Pike of Santa Ana, negotiated the $550,00 settlement last year after Douglas had incurred more than $227,000 in medical bills. In addition to treatment for brain injuries, the lawsuit says that the accident required a series of operations.
The lawsuit says that Douglas protested the settlement, but Pike convinced her and her husband to accept Sizzler's offer.
In July, 1992, one month after signing the settlement agreement, Douglas attempted suicide, the lawsuit states. Her medical bills have since climbed to $300,000 and continue to increase.
Pike declined comment on Douglas' new lawsuit Wednesday.
Burton, her new attorney, acknowledged that the move to set aside the settlement is "an uphill task." But he said "there are a number of cases where it has been done."
"We are not trying to attach blame to anyone," Burton said. "But the real question is whether she was competent to accept the settlement when she did and the answer is clearly no."