May 1, 2009

Slope Accident Victim May Sue

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The Cornell lecturer who was struck last semester by a weight that rolled down Libe Slope in a wrestling team practice gone awry is considering a lawsuit against the University, yet Cornell maintains she does not have standing to sue, according to her attorney.
Joanna Luks, who is still out on medical leave, suffered multiple serious injuries as a result of the accident on Oct. 9.
The incident occurred after members of the wrestling team dropped a rubber plate they had been using during an exercise on Libe Slope. The 45-pound weight rolled down the Slope and across West Avenue. It struck Luks, who was walking down Baker Staircase, and knocked her down the stairs, according to The Sun’s archives. She was later airlifted to Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira.
While Luks hopes to return to Cornell part-time in the fall, her injuries make those plans uncertain.
In the mean time, Luks’ attorney, Patrick Regan, is asking for compensation from the University beyond the workers’ compensation that Luks is already receiving. He said that if the University does not cooperate, Luks may have to sue the individual wrestlers.
Regan said that Luks’s injuries included seven broken ribs, a collapsed lung, three fractures in her face, a skull fracture and “brain bruises and a concussion.”
“She was in a coma for a period of time,” he said. “Immediately afterwards, she didn’t recognize family members.”
After being airlifted to Arnot Ogden, Luks spent eight days in the intensive care unit, and later spent several weeks in Cayuga Medical Center’s rehabilitation wing. Her condition has now improved, but “she’s still in therapy multiple times a week,” Regan said. “She has a long way to go.”
The worker’s compensation benefits that Luks currently receives pay her medical expenses but only a “fraction of her salary,” Regan said.
She is trying to sue the University in order to receive additional compensation through the civil justice system.
“If you have a serious injury, worker’s compensation benefits are grossly inadequate,” Regan said. “The differences between the workers’ compensation system and the civil justice system are night and day.”
However, the University says that it is immune from civil damages because Luks was a Cornell employee on Univer­sity property when the accident occurred, Regan said. If Cornell’s argument holds, Luks would continue to receive workers’ compensation, but could not sue the school for additional damages, he said.
“It’s cheaper for the University to force her to be limited to workers’ compensation benefits” than pay her what the civil justice system would provide, Regan added.
Cornell’s Office of University Counsel did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Regan said that if Cornell maintains its argument, “the University will be forcing [Luks] to sue the individual wrestlers.”
“She could perfectly legitimately sue the students,” he said.
Members of Cornell’s athletic department and wrestling program also did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Since the incident last semester, University officials said they have taken steps to avoid the same accident in the future.
“That specific training exercise on Libe Slope has been removed from the training regimen,” Rob Koll, head coach of the wrestling team said through a University spokesperson.
“The athletic department has taken some strong action to prevent this kind of thing from occurring again,” said Allen Bova, Cornell’s director of risk management.
After the accident occurred, Cornell Police launched an investigation into whether any criminal activity was involved, according to Kathy Zoner, deputy chief of CUPD. The investigation was closed once they determined there was no criminality.
Although the exercise that resulted in Luks’ accident will not be used on the Slope again, Simeon Moss ’73, director of Cornell Press Relations, said he did not know of any University policy regarding where sports teams are allowed to practice on campus.
Luks is continuing to recover and is hoping to teach — at least part-time — next semester, Regan said.
“Our hope is that she’ll have a full recovery and come back to campus,” Bova said.