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July 16, 2012
TOPEKA Doug Samsel said he doesn’t remember the early-morning traffic accident that left him paralyzed and propelled him into Kansas legal history.
“All I know is what people have told me,” he said. “It was about 5:30 in the morning, there was a sharp curve in the road and this truck crossed the center line and hit me. I had people there tell me afterward they all thought I was dead.”
At the time – May 16, 1988 - Samsel was a U.S. Army tank mechanic stationed at Fort Riley. He was 30 years old and the father of a 1-year-old daughter. His wife was seven months pregnant.
He said he also doesn’t remember much about the lawsuit that led to the trucking company’s insurance company covering his medical expenses and his award of $250,000 for pain and suffering. That all happened while he was recovering from the wreck.
“I was at Stormont Vail (hospital, Topeka) and in the VA (Veteran’s Administration) hospital in St. Louis,” he said. “I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t talk so it wouldn’t have done much good for me to be at the trial.”
In Kansas, a law passed in 1986 had imposed a $250,000 cap on pain-and-suffering awards, also known as non-economic damages. So that was how much Samsel received.
Samsel’s attorneys appealed the cap to the Kansas Supreme Court, arguing that it violated his constitutional right to have a jury decide the award. It was the first challenge to a portion of Kansas law that once again is being challenged in the case of Miller v. Johnson, a lawsuit filed in Douglas County after a young mother there had the wrong ovary removed by her doctor.
The court upheld the cap in its 1989 Samsel decision. But now apparently is reconsidering that earlier ruling.
Samsel, now age 54 and living in Topeka, said the $250,000 for pain and suffering wasn't enough.
“Back when all this happened, I didn’t know anything,” he said. “I was young. I’d never been around anybody who was in a wheelchair. I thought $250,000 was a lot of money, but I didn’t know then what I know now.
“If you’re going to remodel your house to make it wheelchair accessible or if you’re going buy a vehicle that you can get your wheelchair in and out of, that $250,000 isn’t going to last very long,” Samsel said. “I’m not saying it’s not a lot of money, I’m just saying it’s not enough.”
Before the accident, Samsel said he was a “happy, go-lucky guy” who was always laughing and joking.
“After you’re paralyzed and you go through some things like losing control of your bladder and bowels, you’re not laughing and joking anymore,” he said. “Your life changes, you’re not who you used to be.”
Samsel said he now lives on his veteran’s disability payments.
He said he was unaware of Amy Miller’s lawsuit.
“I don’t know her,” he said. “But I do know that if one of those justices on the Supreme Court had the wrong ovary removed or ended up being quadriplegic, they’d be screaming for a lot more than $250,000.”
Since the accident, Samsel said he’s regained partial use of his arms and hands.
“I’m paralyzed from the chest down now,” he said.
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