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Judge orders U.S. to pay girl in O.C.

The 9-year-old, whose car was struck by a federal employee, will receive $55 million.

September 13, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Leilani Gutierrez lighted up the room with her smile.

She beamed even as her lawyers dwelt on the fact that the federal government had never apologized for the grave injuries she suffered in a 2002 car accident caused by an employee of the Army National Guard.

She beamed even as her mother discussed the painful road they have traveled since the crash and the long healing process that lies ahead.

And when it was her turn to speak, 9-year-old Leilani, sitting in an electric wheelchair that she controls with her chin, stole the show with her unbridled enthusiasm and cheery outlook on life.

"I have nice friends, and I have a supportive family. I can still play games and have fun like the other kids, just not in the same way," she said, speaking slowly and barely above a whisper. "I have so many goals, and I really hope I can reach those goals. One of them is to be able to walk again. . . . I think it's possible. That keeps me going."

Leilani, of Costa Mesa, was 4 the last time she walked.

It was Mother's Day 2002 when her mother took her to South Coast Plaza to ride the carousel. As they drove home south on Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa, their SUV was broadsided by Michael Lienart, an Army National Guard employee who had traveled to Orange County as part of his duties. Lienart, now 48, ran a red light before slamming into the passenger side of the SUV. He was cited for failing to stop at a light, but the case was dismissed after he went to traffic school.

Lienert could not be reached for comment. The girl's mother said she forgave him.

Last week, a federal judge ordered the U.S. government to pay Leilani, a quadriplegic, nearly $55 million for medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering; and roughly $1 million more to her mother for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and other compensatory damages.

The judgment was disclosed Wednesday during a news conference at the offices of the family's lawyer, Wylie Aitken. He believes this is the largest personal injury award in Orange County history and that, considering her injuries, the amount is fair.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said he did not expect the government to contest the award, noting that it admitted liability for a "tragic accident that's had a severe impact on this young girl's life."

At night, she needs to be awakened every three hours so she can be turned over to prevent bed sores. She relies on a respirator to breathe and requires 24-hour nursing care. Her life expectancy is 35 years, less than half of what it would have otherwise been.

Leilani, for one, prefers to look at the bright side of things, focusing on what she can do rather than on what she can't.

Wearing a green sundress and blue sneakers, her fingernails painted with red polish and pink hearts, she was articulate, witty and buoyant Wednesday as she shared her dreams and thanked family and friends for their support and encouragement, and for making her happy.

Leilani is in the fourth grade now and doing well. She plans to go to college. She enjoys playing soccer with her classmates, even though sometimes it's frustrating when "the ball gets stuck in my wheels," she said.

She loves animals, especially horses, and said she hoped to use some of the award money to buy a "large house with a bunch of acreage so we can possibly have a ranch."

Her mom, who has married since the accident and now has four other children, said Leilani relishes her role as a big sister. The family has worked to create an environment in which she can lead as normal a life as possible, and that they do their best to fulfill her wishes -- like letting her ride an elephant at the county fair or dipping her feet in the ocean. But for the most part, her mother says, it is Leilani who has been a rock and an inspiration, turning a Mother's Day nightmare into a life of gratitude.

"She's my savior," said June Hendriks, 31.

"She is so strong. When I'm sad or I feel bad, she says, 'It's OK, Mommy. I could've died. But I didn't.' "

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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