Jury awards $55 million to accident victims

Rafael Apulello said a $55 million jury verdict may be a stiff penalty for a railroad that ignored safety precautions before a train-car crash, but cannot restore a marriage effectively lost to brain damage.
“She was my buddy– best friend,” Apulello said of his 40-year-old wife Lilia, who functions at the level of a 9-year-old after a Chicago, Central & Pacific Railroad freight train struck her sport-utility vehicle in January 2001. “Now I don’t have it.”

A Cook County jury late Friday awarded $55 million to Lilia Apulello, of Carol Stream, and her parents, 73-year-old Fidel Velarde and 72-year-old Francisca Velarde, of Addison. All suffered brain damage in the wreck.

Under the settlement, Apulello and her husband will receive $34 million and her parents will receive $21 million. Family members said Monday the award will only help them cope with medical and rehabilitation needs.

“It’s not going to bring them back,” said Fidel Velarde Jr., the Velardes’ son and Apulello’s sister. “It’s really not going to do much.”

Canadian National/Illinois Central Railroad has accepted responsibility for the accident, which occurred after a dispatcher approved a 50-mph train through a Bloomingdale crossing that had no functioning warning lights. Authorities said a dispatcher erroneously lifted a “stop and flag” order intended to safeguard motorists. A subsidiary of the company operated the train.

But railroad spokesman Jack Burke said the companies will appeal the award amount.

“We have never denied liability in the case,” Burke said. “We’re going to ask the court to take another look at the award.”

Apulello initially remembered everything and was treated only for a broken hand. Within two weeks, though, she was losing her memory and diagnosed with brain trauma. One of her attorneys, Terrence Lavin, said she was bilingual as a child but now can speak only Spanish and is unable to work, drive or dress herself.

“She’s like a kid lost in the mall unless she’s at home in her own bed,” Lavin said.

Jerry Velarde described how his family takes turns caring for the three, because, until now, they have been unable to afford home health care. He said his father seems fine some days, but on others cannot eat or go to the bathroom by himself.

“We do what we have to do,” he said.

The Velarde’s attorney, Tim Cavanagh, said a safety crackdown is needed at the many railroad crossings in the Chicago area, noting that the same Bloomingdale crossing experienced a false signal on Monday morning, possibly tempting motorists to drive around gates when no train appeared.

“This (verdict) sends an important message to the railroad industry in this state,” Cavanagh said.

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