For the past two years, Samantha Mattei’s family has hoped for a multimillion-dollar award in their suit against the MBTA to pay the burgeoning medical costs she has incurred since suffering a brain injury in a 2009 Green Line trolley crash — but their hopes were dashed Monday.
Mattei, a 23-year-old Salem resident who was studying mathematics at Merrimack College, was one of several passengers hurt. The MBTA admitted liability in the collision because the trolley operator was found to have been text messaging on his cellphone.
Mattei took the transportation agency to court in 2011, asking for $8.6 million to pay for her treatment and compensate her for pain and suffering and loss of future income, according to court documents.
But a jury in Essex Superior Court in Lawrence awarded her nearly $580,000, disappointing Mattei. After lawyers’ fees are deducted, the sum will barely pay for her medical expenses to date, which have already risen to about $390,000, her father Fred Mattei said today.
“It leaves us a very uncertain future about how we’re going to afford to take care of my daughter and pay her medical bills,” he said. “What dazzled me was that there was nothing awarded for her future care and nothing for her pain and suffering.”
Twenty-four passengers filed lawsuits against the MBTA in the wake of the crash. Nine were settled out of court for an average of $31,000. But some passengers took their cases to trial and won large awards. One Scituate woman was given $1.2 million in 2012 because her injuries forced her to leave her job as a ticket agent for Delta Air Lines.
“We thank the jury for its careful consideration of all the evidence and testimony in this case,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said of Mattei’s lawsuit. “We believe the jurors’ decision was a fair and just one.”
The discrepancy in damages awarded confused and angered Fred Mattei, who said his daughter had lost the bright future she was destined for.
Samantha Mattei was a straight-A math and science student in college, but the crash damaged the part of her brain that allows her to do math. Now she has all but dropped out of school because she cannot concentrate on the calculus she was studying in school, Fred Mattei said.
“She is very depressed,” he said. “She says the numbers just swim; she can’t keep the numbers straight in her head.”
The key issue in the lawsuit was Mattei’s health before, and after, the crash.
When she was a teenager, Mattei was diagnosed with a somatoform disorder, a condition which causes a person to feel chronic pain without any physical causes, Mattei’s father said. Her immune system was weak and she was often sick, he added.
Fred Mattei said Samantha’s symptoms had disappeared in the years prior to the accident, but have returned since, exacerbated by her brain injury.
However, lawyers for the MBTA argued that most of Samantha Mattei’s medical problems predated the crash and the transportation agency was therefore not liable for them, Fred Mattei said.
In such a case, lawyers from both sides generally call multiple medical experts to testify as to how much the victim’s injuries are likely to cost and how much future income they are likely to give up, said John Goldberg, a professor and expert in tort law at Harvard Law School.
The jury is told to determine what constitutes “fair and reasonable compensation,” he said.
Juries therefore have broad discretion to determine monetary awards in personal injury cases like Mattei’s, Goldberg said.
“It seems on its face very puzzlin. It seems on its face very low,” he said of Mattei’s award.
The trolley’s operator, Aiden Quinn, was also hurt in the crash, which caused $10 million in damage to MBTA property.
Quinn pleaded guilty to negligence in 2010 and was sentenced to two years of probation and 100 hours of community service. Quinn’s role in the crash was not an issue in the trial because the MBTA admitted liability, said Paul Mitchell, Mattei’s lawyer.Todd Feathers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ToddFeathers.