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One Million Dollar Settlement Against Palumbo Bros

03.27.1997

Circuit Court Judge Walter Kowalski has approved a $1 million settlement in a wrongful death action brought on behalf of Patricia Sturm, a 31-year-old Buffalo Grove woman who was killed in a 1991 automobile accident when road conditions due to a highway construction project caused her car to veer off an embankment and roll over. Sturm was thrown from the car and died of massive head injuries. Her only child, Patrick, four days shy of his first birthday, was in a child restraint seat and was uninjured in the accident.

Francis Patrick Murphy of Chicago's Corboy & Demetrio represented the family in a suit against Palumbo Bros., the Chicago-based construction company working on the road project, and the State of Illinois.

Sturm was driving her 1990 Mazda Miata southbound on Route 53 just south of Route 12 in Arlington Heights when the accident occurred. Before construction, Route 53 was a divided highway with three southbound lanes and a gravel shoulder. To the west of the gravel shoulder was a deep embankment that dropped off nine feet away from the paved traffic lane. During reconstruction of the highway, however, the gravel shoulder was paved over and traffic was rerouted to the shoulder and the lane next to it while the two other lanes were being rebuilt. In doing so, the construction company left only two feet of gravel road between the paved shoulder on which motorists were driving and the embankment. And the company did not erect temporary barriers of any type.

Eyewitnesses to the accident said it appeared that Sturm, while on the paved shoulder, swerved to avoid hitting a car in the inner lane. As she swerved to the west, her front right wheel caught on the gravel section of the highway and she lost control of the car, which went down the embankment, flipping over several times. Sturm was thrown from the car and later died of head injuries.

Workers from an Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) crew came to the scene and gave Sturm first aid. The workers also heard cries coming from the upside down Miata. Tilting the car over, they found Patrick upside down with his head only inches from the ground.

Murphy, who represented the plaintiff's family, says that the general contractor in this type of accident generally claims that it cannot be held liable since it is simply following the contract given to it by IDOT. "And that tactic has been very successful," says Murphy. "But with the specific facts in this case, in which the driving public was moved within two feet of the [embankment] compared to nine feet before construction, we had a traffic construction expert who said that any competent contractor would have brought this danger to IDOT's attention," Murphy says. "If IDOT did not initiate a work change," he adds, "Palumbo should have done so on its own."

In addition to her son, Patrick, Sturm is survived by her husband, Bill, a gas-station operator. Murphy says that Bill and Patrick have developed a very close father-son relationship. "Bill cut back on his hours in order to be with Patrick as much as possible," Murphy says, explaining how much it had hurt Sturm to hear Patrick approach a woman at the day-care facility he attended and asked if she was his "mommy." Says Murphy: "As with so many deaths, just a little common sense and a couple of bucks would save a life."

Serious settlement negotiations began after indictments charging the principals of Palumbo Bros. with fraud were handed down by U.S. Atty. James Burns last summer. The indictments allege that the construction company defrauded the State of Illinois on road projects. The family's suit against the State of Illinois will be dismissed, Murphy says.

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