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Shoemaker Lawsuit Is Settled

Jurisprudence: Former jockey ends up with about $2.5 million from vehicle manufacturer, but nothing from hospital or doctors.

March 25, 1997|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bill Shoemaker malpractice suit against a hospital and seven doctors ended abruptly Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

After four weeks of testimony, with more than a dozen of Shoemaker's witnesses yet to appear, there was an out-of-court settlement that left Shoemaker with perhaps $2.5 million in total payments from the Ford Motor Co., but with no money from the defendants.

Shoemaker, a quadriplegic since his near-fatal, single-car accident in San Dimas six years ago, had sued for more than $50 million, naming as defendants Glendora Community Hospital and the doctors who treated him in the hours after the accident. Shoemaker's attorneys alleged that, although he might have been left a paraplegic after the accident, treatment at the hospital aggravated his condition and left him paralyzed from the neck down.

In a pretrial settlement, Shoemaker had already collected $1 million from Ford, the manufacturer of the Ford Bronco II that went down a 30-foot embankment and rolled over three or four times. Shoemaker, who broke his neck in the accident, had been guaranteed another $1.5 million from Ford, providing he sued the others and was unable to collect that much.

In the aftermath of Monday's settlement, which was negotiated by attorneys for Shoemaker, the defendants and Ford in the chambers of Judge Frederick J. Lower Jr., it was unclear how much Shoemaker was paid by Ford. Lower put a gag order on the participating attorneys, under threat of a $25,000 fine for each violation.

Neither Shoemaker nor his attorney, Neil Papiano, would comment, and attorneys for Ford couldn't be reached.

Under terms of the settlement, all of the defendants but Paul Waters, an anesthesiologist, waived the right to sue Shoemaker for legal costs. All but Waters also promised not to countersue Shoemaker for malicious prosecution. H. Gilbert Jones, Waters' attorney, cited the gag order when asked whether his client would go after Shoemaker.

At the time of the accident, Shoemaker had finished a Hall of Fame career as a jockey--he had ridden 8,833 winners, still the record--and had begun a training career.

After rehabilitation, Shoemaker resumed training from a wheelchair and currently has 25 horses under his care at Santa Anita.

Besides Waters and the hospital, other defendants in the suit were Drs. Leslie Wise, Demetrio Hechanova, Billy Leon, Alfonso Miguel, Celedonio Fernando and Donald Shapiro.

Attorneys estimated before Monday's settlement that the trial might have another four weeks to run. Christopher Hiddleson, a lawyer for the California Dept. of Transportation, which was removed as a defendant before the trial began, said that legal fees, expenses for paid expert witnesses and other trial costs will run into millions of dollars.

Since the accident, the 65-year-old Shoemaker's third marriage has ended in divorce. He lives in San Marino with his 16-year-old daughter from that marriage.

Reached at his home Monday, Shoemaker said, "I'm happy that it's all over. This is the way it should be. I don't think I wanted this to go all the way to a jury verdict. The whole thing was getting to be a grind. I think it turned out all right. Maybe I should still be able to use my upper body. Now what I've got to do is find some horses who can run a little."

Shoemaker had testified all day on March 13 and was scheduled to return to the stand this week.

He was on the way home from a round of golf when his vehicle veered off a westbound lane of California 30. He testified in a deposition that he was reaching for a phone on the car's floor when he lost control of his vehicle. He admitted having been drinking with his golf buddies, but said he wasn't drunk, even though two tests at the hospital showed that his blood-alcohol level was well above the legal maximum for driving.

His attorneys were arguing that he deserved better treatment at the hospital, regardless of how much he had had to drink.

The settlement conferences before Lower began at midday last Thursday, continued all day Friday and resumed Monday morning before a resolution was announced and the jury was excused early Monday afternoon.

A sample by The Times as the jurors left the courtroom indicated that three of them favored the doctors and four were undecided.

Juror John Haley said, "You would have thought that Mr. Shoemaker would have been writing letters to these doctors, thanking them for saving his life, rather than suing them."

Another juror objected to the fees that Shoemaker's attorneys were paying expert witnesses.

"When they were paid like that, you suspected that they were trying their best to help Mr. Shoemaker," juror Freddie Tirona said.

The jurors had not been told during the trial about Ford's pretrial settlement.

Hiddleson said that the doctors were victorious.

"They won their case," he said. "They can claim victory. This is complete vindication. For Shoemaker to drop his case in midstream meant that he didn't have much of a case to begin with."

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