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$16 Million Awarded in Drunk Driving Tragedy : Suit: Victim is in a coma. Judgment is largest ever granted in Glendale Superior Court.


GLENDALE — The family of a woman who has been in a coma since she was hit by a drunk driver four years ago has received what is believed to be the biggest civil judgment ever awarded in Glendale Superior Court--$16 million.

Cal State Northridge senior Rotem Zamir was just 10 days shy of her 21st birthday when she sank into a coma after being struck while crossing Cahuenga Boulevard in Studio City on Dec. 6, 1991. Her family sued the driver to pay for mounting medical bills, said their attorney, Michael Piuze.

"She was an immigrant who came to this country from Israel with her family when she was 15," Piuze said. "She worked hard to put herself through college and she was a good student. This was an unbearable loss for the family, and on top of that the financial strain of caring for their daughter has been tremendous."

The trial concluded last week with the Glendale jury ruling that the driver, Elizabeth Freebird, now 29, of North Hollywood, should pay the family $15 million for medical expenses, their daughter's lost wages over her lifetime and pain and suffering. Then, as provided by state law, the jury was given information about Freebird's finances and ordered that the family be paid an additional $1 million in punitive damages.

Freebird was driving with her headlights off when the accident occurred and had a blood-alcohol level of .22%--well above the .08% legal definition of drunkenness, Piuze said. She was sentenced to probation after pleading no contest to driving under the influence and causing great bodily injury, a felony, he said.

Her attorney, Kurt Boyd, said Freebird has not yet decided whether to appeal the judgment, which Freebird is "obviously not capable" of paying.

"She is the beneficiary of a trust, and the amount of money in the trust is not even close to this settlement," Boyd said. He added that he believes it would be illegal to seize the trust fund, which is deposited in a Chicago bank. Piuze countered that Freebird has ignored court orders to disclose her financial resources, and said his own investigation indicated that she was "a multimillionaire."

Piuze said the family's medical expenses have already reached about $700,000 and are expected to rise into millions of dollars over Zamir's lifetime, which, although it will probably be shortened by her brain damage and other injuries, is expected to last another 30 years.

Members of the Zamir family declined comment.

The largest previous civil damage award in the Los Angeles County Superior Court North Central Division, which includes the Glendale and Burbank courthouses, was $5 million. In 1989, a Burbank developer was ordered to pay that amount to a construction worker crushed by a Caterpillar truck. In 1993, a Burbank jury awarded $4.6 million to a man hit by a garbage truck.

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