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Millions don't bring comfort to quadriplegic

After being injured at Gold's Gym in Venice, Harold Leon Bostick wins damages. But his former life is still lost.

November 24, 2008|Joanna Lin | Lin is a Times staff writer.

It's been a tough eight years for Harold Leon Bostick. The aspiring lawyer and lifelong athlete became a quadriplegic when weightlifting equipment at his gym crashed down onto his neck. Seven years of litigation ended last week with Bostick $18.6 million richer, but no less relieved.

No amount of money, the 39-year-old Pennsylvania native says, would give him the life he had before the evening of Jan. 4, 2001.

"It's kind of like a mini-death," Bostick said Wednesday outside U.S. District Court, where a jury awarded him more than $11 million in the second lawsuit stemming from his injury. "The walking me died in 2001. Now there's the rolling me."

He says he fears that the jury's verdict will be appealed and that his legal problems will never be resolved.

Bostick, a former Marine who holds degrees in chemical engineering, business and law, suffered temporary amnesia after the accident.

Much of what happened the day of his accident remains hazy, but what he does remember began like many of his regular workouts at Gold's Gym in Venice.

He warmed up on an elliptical machine, stretched and headed toward a Flex Equipment Co. Smith machine to do squats. He started with about 90 pounds of weight, and increased it after each set. A few sets and a couple of hundred pounds into his workout, the horizontal bar of weights fell. Because no adjustable safety stops were installed on the machine, Bostick crumpled to the floor.

Bostick sued Flex and Gold's Gym. He offered to settle with Flex and its insurer, Atlantic Mutual, for its policy limit of $1 million.

Estimating that a loss at trial could easily exceed $1 million, an attorney for Atlantic Mutual said "it may be dangerous to reject the plaintiff's current offer" and recommended settlement, according to court documents. Atlantic Mutual never responded to Bostick's offer, and the case went to trial.

A Superior Court jury found Flex liable and awarded Bostick more than $14.6 million. Frustrated that its insurer did not settle and unable to pay the jury award, Flex gave Bostick the right to sue Atlantic Mutual for bad faith for refusing to settle earlier in the case. Gold's Gym settled with Bostick for $7.3 million.

After seven years of litigation, a U.S. District Court jury last week ruled against the insurance company and awarded Bostick an additional $11.3 million.

Even if the courts uphold the jury verdict, Bostick said, his life would remain "pretty much the same as it is now" -- he will be in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

But Bostick said he sees one benefit: "I'd have more money to help other people who are handicapped."

In July, Bostick and some friends founded the Disabled Sports and Fitness Foundation, a nonprofit group intended to help people afford and gain access to sports equipment for physical therapy.

In some ways, his goals today are not so different than they were when he enrolled as a law student at Pepperdine University a few months before his injury. Bostick said he wanted to be an in-court litigator -- "like on TV."

"My goal was to help people that couldn't afford legal help," he said. "I wasn't going out there for the big money class -- more for the little man."

He said he still aspires to assist those who can't afford the services they need, hoping to one day open a physical therapy gym for disabled people of all financial means.

In the first year of his injury, Bostick's medical bills neared $700,000, said his attorney, William D. Chapman. Bostick now performs physical therapy on his own in a makeshift garage gym inside the Northridge home he shares with his parents.

Bostick, who can move his arms but cannot grip with his hands, plays basketball and competes in hand cycle races. He still has the muscular, V-shaped torso of the amateur weightlifter he once was.

Without sports, Bostick said, his mind wanders. He asks "Why me?" and struggles with depression.

Focusing on what he can do in the present and future, not dwelling on the past -- "It's always hard to do," Bostick said. "But I'm getting better at that."

--

joanna.lin@latimes.com

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