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updated: 8/23/2017 11:04 PM

Jury awards $148 million to dancer paralyzed by falling O'Hare shelter

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  • Video: ABC 7 report from the trial

  • Tierney Darden appears outside court Wednesday in Chicago after a jury awarded her $148 million in her lawsuit against the city of Chicago. She was paralyzed by a collapsing bus shelter in 2015 at O'Hare International Airport.

    Tierney Darden appears outside court Wednesday in Chicago after a jury awarded her $148 million in her lawsuit against the city of Chicago. She was paralyzed by a collapsing bus shelter in 2015 at O'Hare International Airport.
    COURTESY OF ABC 7 CHICAGO

  • A Vernon Hills house was refurbished to accommodate Tierney Darden after she was paralyzed by a collapsing bus shelter at O'Hare International Airport.

    A Vernon Hills house was refurbished to accommodate Tierney Darden after she was paralyzed by a collapsing bus shelter at O'Hare International Airport.
    Courtesy of Darden family

 
Daily Herald report

A jury awarded $148 million Wednesday to a 26-year-old paralyzed dancer from Lake County after a bus shelter at O'Hare International Airport collapsed on her during a storm in 2015.

Tierney Darden, then of Mundelein and now of Vernon Hills, sued the city of Chicago and the Chicago Department of Aviation for negligence. The city had offered to settle the case for $22 million but Darden's attorney refused, ABC 7 reported.

During closing arguments, Darden's attorney suggested that she be awarded nearly $175 million for pain, suffering and medical costs, ABC 7 said. The jury heard from Darden and her family, who testified about her constant pain and suffering since Aug. 2, 2015. They also saw video of what her life is like, requiring 24-hour care.

Darden, who uses a wheelchair, and her family were in the courtroom when the verdict was announced about 5 p.m., after the jury had deliberated for about four hours, ABC 7 reported. Darden cried when she heard the jury's award. Once court was dismissed, jurors crossed the courtroom to hug her.

"In this case, that money doesn't matter because it's not going to bring her to her feet again," juror Luis Hernandez told ABC 7. But we went over everything and we broke everything down for the rest of her life, because she can't work. So all that money, she's depending on that money for the rest of her life."

With the trial over, Darden can now focus on other areas of her life, one of her attorneys, Patrick Salvi, said in a news release Wednesday.

"This is a verdict these jurors can be proud of and exactly what Tierney deserves," Salvi said. "We are thankful to these 12 people for fully recognizing Tierney's injuries and helping her move on with her life."

The trial started over a week ago in a Cook County courtroom. According to the news release, the city of Chicago is insured by AIG Aviation up to $500 million for situations at O'Hare similar to Darden's.

Darden's attorney and her family said they would speak at a news conference Thursday.

Tierney Darden had just arrived home on a flight from Minnesota and was waiting for a bus with her mother and sister near Terminal 2 at the O'Hare lower street level when a storm rolled through the Chicago area about 2:40 p.m. The women were returning from a shopping trip for bridesmaid dresses for an upcoming wedding when the pedestrian shelter, weighing more than 750 pounds, became loose and fell onto Tierney Darden, the attorneys said.

"My face hit the ground, there was a crack and a white light, and everything went numb," Tierney told the jury. "I knew I was paralyzed. The pain I feel every day is like torture."

Tierney Darden, a dancer and student at Truman College in Chicago, suffered dislocated vertebras and a severed spinal cord, and was left paralyzed from the waist down.

COURTESY OF ABC 7 CHICAGOTierney Darden appears outside court with her attorneys, including Patrick Salvi, and family members Wednesday in Chicago after a jury awarded her $148 million in her lawsuit against the city of Chicago.
COURTESY OF ABC 7 CHICAGOTierney Darden appears outside court with her attorneys, including Patrick Salvi, and family members Wednesday in Chicago after a jury awarded her $148 million in her lawsuit against the city of Chicago. -

Tierney Darden's mother, Trudy Darden, and sister, Tayah Minniefield, also suffered minor injuries in the collapse, attorneys said in the lawsuit filed in Cook County Civil Court.

The pedestrian shelter the three women waited under was "visibly rusted, decaying, and generally in a decaying condition" and was "inadequately attached to the ground," the lawsuit said.

It was determined the shelter that injured Tierney had missing bolts. An investigation later found other shelters at O'Hare Airport were poorly maintained, with missing bolts, corroded parts or broken brackets. Five months before the trial, the city admitted wrongful conduct for the situation, Darden's attorneys said.

"The city of Chicago's wrongful conduct forever changed the course of Tierney's life," one of Darden's attorneys, Jeffrey J. Kroll, said during opening statements. "She will never walk or dance again. The city didn't just take away the lower half of her body that day, they amputated her spirit and her soul."

"Tierney is a dancer and she is dealing with the realization that, if she wants to dance, she'll have to find another way," her father, David Darden, said at the time the lawsuit was filed. "She has gone from dancing upright to lying in a hospital bed."

Darden is a 2009 graduate of Vernon Hills High School.

The powerful Aug. 2 storm that blew through the Chicago area killed one man and injured 22 people at a festival in Wood Dale when the tent they took shelter under collapsed. An indoor softball dome in Rosemont also was damaged by the storm.

At least 50 volunteers, starting in October 2015, combined to spend an estimated 1,000 hours helping Darden, culminating in the refurbishing of a house in Vernon Hills to accommodate her. Volunteers ranged from those who've known her since childhood or from a high school dance team to construction trade professionals and strangers, one of whom made 60-mile round-trips to help.

Kinzie Real Estate Group donated its services to oversee the work at the house. Vernon Hills High School also held fundraisers to help with the costs of the Vernon Hills home.

Kendra Scott Jewelry in Chicago also created and sold a customized a piece of jewelry named "The Tierney" to help raise funds for her. The company donated 20 percent of proceeds from the sale.

• Daily Herald correspondent Katie Smith contributed to this report.

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