Jury awards $2.4 million in bike-car crash near Steamboat | SteamboatToday.com

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Jury awards $2.4 million in bike-car crash near Steamboat

Wayne and Julie Ranieri awarded for damages and compensation

Steamboat Springs attorney Jim Heckbert explains Tuesday how his client

— A Routt County jury awarded Julie and Wayne Ranieri $2.4 million in damages and compensation last week after a March 2009 crash that occurred while Wayne Ranieri was riding his bicycle near Lake Catamount.

The jury determined Friday that motorist Kathy Whaley owed Wayne Ranieri $1.63 million for non-economic damages, $359,000 for economic damages and $240,000 for impairment and Julie Ranieri $173,320 for compensatory damages.

Wayne Ranieri, a local real estate agent, was riding his bicycle near a property he was showing at the time of the collision March 19, 2009. The Ranieris' attorney, Jim Heckbert, said Wayne Ranieri is an experienced mountain bike rider and had competed and ridden in the area for years.

Heckbert said Wayne Ranieri was thrown more than 20 feet when Whaley reportedly cut a corner too close and drove into the oncoming traffic lane, hitting Wayne Ranieri head-on. Wayne Ranieri landed on his buttocks, compressing his spine and crushing a vertebra in his lower back. He was in the hospital for 13 days.

Heckbert said Wayne Ranieri was riding on the far right side of the road, as evidenced by skid marks at the site, and saw the oncoming car but could not avoid the collision and swerved to the left to try to avoid the car.

Whaley's attorney, Lake­wood-based Bradley Ross-Shannon, said the facts of the incident were disputed, and they think the accident happened closer to the center of the road. He said where Wayne Ranieri was riding on the road was not an issue at the trial, but it was argued that Ranieri was biking too fast to stay in control.

Mountain lifestyle

According to his professional website, Ranieri's favorite activities include, "powder skiing, mountain biking, martial arts, snow shoeing, hiking, running, camping and horseback riding."

"When you do this to someone who is highly active, his whole life is changed," Heckbert said.

Since that time, Ranieri has gone through two major surgeries to fuse three vertebrae in his lower back and hold his back together with rods and pins. He now goes to physical therapy several times a week and has tried to ride his bicycle several times since the incident, with little success. The jarring motion, and the pain from leaning over the handlebars, means Ranieri will likely not be able to ride at nearly the level he used to.

"Wayne will have pain in his back at the level of twice a toothache," Heckbert said. "He has a limitation of motion, he can only sit for brief periods of time without having to get up and can only walk for brief periods of time."

Wayne Ranieri declined to comment for this story, and Julie Ranieri was reportedly out of town. A message left at a phone number for Whaley was not returned.

Lawyer: Appeal likely

Ross-Shannon said he wanted to emphasize that Kathy Whaley and her husband are "very good people," and "involved members of the community" who work with charitable organizations. He said the jury didn't get a good picture of who they were at the trial.

"The other thing I'd say is the Whaleys certainly feel badly the accident occurred and hope that Wayne Ranieri continues in his progress," Ross-Shannon said.

Heckbert said the damages awarded by the jury included the cost of Wayne Ranieri's medical care at Yampa Valley Medical Center, as well as for future surgeries, which Ranieri's doctor, Dr. Henry Fabian, said would be necessary in coming years.

Heckbert said Whaley's phone records show that she was on a call at 5:16 p.m., making reservations at a restaurant, and at 5:17 p.m. she called 911. It's possible, he said, that she was hanging up the phone at the time of the crash.

Ross-Shannon said Whaley was adamant that she was not on her phone and the phone was not in her hand at the time of the crash, and she had called as she was leaving her home, not on that stretch of road. He said the cell phone accusation was used to inflame the jury.

Ross-Shannon said the verdict is only partially covered by insurance. He said it's likely that he and Whaley will appeal the decision.

"We're disappointed with the verdict," he said. "We certainly respect the jury verdict but are disappointed by it. We do believe there are some errors in law we will be pursuing on appeal."

— To reach Zach Fridell, call 871-4208 or e-mail zfridell@steamboatpilot.com