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By Evan Goodenow
June 24th, 2012 in Top Stories
SHEFFIELD LAKE — Wedged between the steering wheel and seat of her car, Alice Smith was slowly dying as firefighters fought to free her after a Nov. 30 head-on car crash in Sheffield.
Smith was hit by a 2002 Ford Explorer driven by Ramon Davila Jr. that police say went left of center. The impact of the crash in the 1100 block of Abbe Road pushed Smith’s 2004 Chevrolet Impala back 40 feet, and the engine block of the Explorer jammed into the Impala’s engine block. While Davila, who sustained non-life-threatening injuries, was freed within minutes, the extrication of Smith took nearly an hour.
For 53 minutes, firefighters pounded on the roof with hatchets while the high-pitched whine of tools sounded as other firefighters cut through the passenger side and rear driver’s side doors. They eventually peeled back the car’s roof to free Smith.
Smith, initially knocked unconscious, said she knew she was in bad shape when she awoke.
“The pain that I felt — words can’t even explain it.” Smith said Wednesday when she revisited the crash site a few miles from her Sheffield Lake home.
Both of Smith’s legs and her feet were broken. She had six broken ribs, a broken jaw, a lacerated liver and spleen and a collapsed lung. She spent three weeks at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland before being transferred to the Keystone Pointe Health & Rehabilitation Center in LaGrange, from which she was released on June 13.
Smith, who underwent six surgeries, has an 8-inch scar on her right leg and needs a walker to move. She is in constant pain, and doctors say she will never fully recover the strength in her legs. Smith said her orthopedist told her it was a miracle she survived and that her legs weren’t amputated.
Smith, formerly a social worker for the state, has been unable to work since the crash, which has devastated her financially as well as physically. Smith estimates her medical bills — including the $12,200 helicopter flight to Metro — are at least $200,000 and may go up to $500,000.
Smith, who said she is on the brink of declaring bankruptcy, is using her ordeal to lobby for better protection for people hit by underinsured drivers like Davila, who she said had minimum coverage.
“I was not as well-covered as I thought I was, so financially, I’m ruined,” said Smith who had $25,000 in uninsured motorist coverage. “You’ve got to make sure you have underinsured and uninsured motorist (coverage). That is so important.”
Ohio drivers must purchase minimum uninsured motorist coverage of $12,500 bodily injury per person, $25,000 injury for two or more people and $7,500 of property damage. The standards haven’t changed since 1969, two years before the 41-year-old Smith was born.
While highway speed limits were increased by the Legislature on the Ohio Turnpike from 65 mph to 70 mph, a bill proposed in the last legislative session increasing minimum coverage to $20,000 for bodily injury per person, $40,000 for two or more people and $15,000 for property damage, stalled in committee, said attorney Andy Young — no relation to The Chronicle-Telegram’s editor — who is representing Smith pro bono.
“It’s unconscionable,” said Young, who blames insurance industry lobbyists and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for keeping Ohio’s minimums among the nation’s lowest.
Young, a former Democratic North Ridgeville councilman who works for the Cleveland-based firm of Nurenberg, Paris, Heller & McCarthy, said insurance companies encourage drivers to select minimum coverage to reduce the company’s exposure in crashes. He said paying about $100 more annually would significantly increase coverage if drivers are struck by underinsured or uninsured motorists.
Young said drivers need to ask their insurance agents hard questions.
“The shtick in the insurance industry is to get you to revisit how to lower your rates, (but) while you may be lowering your rates, you’re definitely lowering their exposure, and you may be the one that is getting substantially less (coverage)” Young said. “It’s amazing how little it costs to really increase the exposure of the insurance companies.”
Young said the proposed increase in the bill is inadequate, but a step in the right direction in the unlikely event of its passage.
“I have the sinking feeling it’s not going to go anywhere in this session and will have to be reintroduced in the following session,” he said.
However, if hearings are held on the legislation, known as House Bill 278, Smith would like to testify for it.
“The fact that she wants to turn her incident into an education opportunity so that folks can make sure they have adequate insurance coverage is truly courageous,” Young said. “Her strength and resolve through this whole process has been phenomenal.”
Smith said she was like many drivers, believing they’re adequately covered if they aren’t at fault in an accident.
“Here I was just driving along, following the law and boom. It can happen to you,” she said. “And if it does, you want to be covered. You want to make sure that you have the money to be able to pay your bills should you be disabled for life like I am.”
‘Please don’t let me die’
The last thing Smith remembers of the time around the crash is being on her way to drop off two of her three children for a custodial visit with their father in Lorain. Both were in child seats in the back of the Impala.
Alicia Golden, now 5, suffered a lacerated spleen, broken clavicle, broken left arm, broken rib and a concussion.
Jonathan Golden, now 2, suffered a lacerated liver, bruised kidney and a concussion.
Fearing they were dead, Smith said witnesses told her she screamed to drivers who were sheltering the children until ambulances arrived to let her see them. Smith remembers firefighters placing a blanket over her face to keep it from being cut when they removed the Impala’s windshield.
And she remembers firefighter and paramedic Mike Foreman in the back seat. Foreman inserted IV bags into Smith’s arms during the extrication and tried to keep her calm and conscious.
Smith said Foreman spoke of a bicycle he had bought for Christmas for his young daughter and that the only other thing he wanted for Christmas was for Smith, who also has a 19-year-old daughter, Nicole, to see her children on Christmas.
Smith wasn’t so sure.
“He said I just kept begging him, ‘Please don’t let me die. I want to see my children again,’ ” Smith said. “He was telling me to be strong.”
The Explorer’s speedometer showed Davila was driving 75 mph when he struck Smith, who was driving 43 mph, according to the police crash report. The posted speed limit is 50 mph where the crash occurred.
Davila was charged with failure to drive in a continuous lane of travel. He was convicted on Feb. 17 and paid $240 in fines and court costs, according to Kreig Brusnahan, Sheffield Mayor’s Court magistrate.
Davila, 55, has had prior charges filed against him related to his driving.
In 2008, he was convicted of drunken driving and spent three days in jail after he was found to have been driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.16 — twice the legal limit. Davila also has been convicted of speeding, not wearing a seat belt and of a stop-sign violation.
Brusnahan said Davila’s attorney provided him with documents showing a “serious medical condition” caused the crash.
Brusnahan said a medical privacy law prevents him from disclosing what the condition was.
“That formed not only the basis for what he was charged with, but how I eventually disposed of the case,” he said. “I took his prior record into consideration when I assessed the fine.”
Brusnahan said the circumstances surrounding the crash are beyond his control.
“I’m sure that everyone feels very sorry for what’s happened, but I’m guided by what he’s charged with,” he said. “That’s why they call them accidents.”
Police Chief Larry Bliss said a reckless driving charge wasn’t filed because of the alleged medical condition and because “willful and wanton” conduct on the part of Davila couldn’t be proven.
Bliss said Davila’s prior driving record couldn’t be taken into consideration.
“We can’t charge somebody with something because they did it before,” he said. “We have to be able to prove that they did it again.”
Davila didn’t return requests for an interview made in person at his Sheffield Lake home about a half-mile from Smith’s home and by phone last week.
“I told him face-to-face, ‘If you ever get behind the wheel again, I hope you think about her,’” said Smith’s sister, Carol Smith-Hollows.
Smith said she hopes to someday shake Davila’s hand and tell him she forgives him. Smith, who cannot drive and frequently panics when being driven, said she relies on prayer to cope with her pain.
Because Smith is barely ambulatory and cannot work — she relies on Medicaid to cover her medical costs — she lost custody of Alicia and Jonathan.
Smith hopes enough money will be raised at a Saturday benefit for her to pay for a fence to allow them to play safely in her backyard when they visit.
Once a provider of help to others as a social worker, Smith now depends on friends and family for things as simple as getting up from a chair, an irony that isn’t lost on her.
Nonetheless, Smith said she is grateful to be alive and to have her legs.
“They might not look pretty, but they’re there,” she said. “It’s my badge of courage. I’m a survivor.”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to view the article on The Chronicle-Telegram online.
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