Emotional testimony in Metra civil trial

February 25, 2009 3:51:12 PM PST
A woman critically injured in a 2005 Metra derailment took the witness stand Wednesday. Renea Poppel is suing the commuter rail line to help pay for her on going medical care and pain and suffering related to crash.

Metra has already acknowledged in court that it was negligent in the derailment that killed two other passengers.

Poppel was pregnant at the time of the crash and now suffers from brain damage. She says her injuries are making it even harder to raise her 3-year-old daughter.

The derailment three-and-a-half years ago forever changed Renea Poppel's life. Her injuries were so severe, there were doubts that she would live, and little faith that her unborn daughter would survive.

Renea lived, and her daughter, who was named Faith, is now a healthy 3-year-old.

Metra had offered to settle this case for what it believed was a fair and just monetary award of $16 million, but Poppel's attorneys decided to take it to trial, and Thursday the case will go to the jury.

Renea Poppel will likely require full-time care for the rest of her life. She has made progress in her rehab, but she can't feed herself, nor can she comb her hair. Her speech remains limited.

"I just want to know why it happened," Poppel said in a 2006 interview.

It happened because the engineer of the Rock Island Metra train hit a crossover at 69 mph. He was supposed to have slowed to 10. Two passengers were killed, many more injured, Renea among the most severe.

The engineer has since been fired, the crossover eliminated, Metra expanded its engineer training programs, and it acknowledged -- after the accident -- that it was responsible for what happened.

Metra offered to settle the case for $16 million in damages, both economic loss and pain and suffering. Poppel's attorneys declined the offer, and the case is now about to be decided by a jury.

Renea appeared before the jury Wednesday, and in speech not easy to understand, she said that her hope is that one day she will be able to take care of herself and raise her two young children "in the right way."

While there are ways to calculate lost income and future medical expenses, it is always a challenge for juries to put a dollar figure on a lost quality of life.

"You just can't put a price tag on that. You can't say to a person, How much is your pain and suffering worth?" said Prof. Bruce Ottley, DePaul College of Law.

It often differs greatly depending on the case. And, on the final full day of the Poppel case, each side presented experts explaining what they believe Poppel should receive in compensatory damages.

"Sometimes the jury will go with whichever expert they feel that's more believable. Sometimes, they will split the difference," said Ottley.

Poppel's attorneys say her economic losses alone amount to over $15 million. Thursday, in their closing arguments, they will give the jury a number they believe is fair and just.