A young dancer left partially paralyzed when a shelter at O’Hare International Airport collapsed on her has received a record $115 million settlement from Chicago and its insurer, her attorney announced Tuesday.
The settlement comes after a Cook County jury in August deliberated just four hours before awarding Tierney Darden, now 26, a record $148 million in damages. The city had admitted it was liable five months before trial. Jurors lined up to hug Darden, who lives with her father in Vernon Hills, before leaving the Daley Center courtroom.
After the city argued in court the verdict was “excessive” Darden’s lawyers ultimately settled this week for $115 million — still a state record in an individual personal injury case, her lawyers said. Such post-verdict settlements are not uncommon in civil cases with large damage awards against municipalities and other deep-pocketed defendants.
“Although we believed the verdict would have been upheld on appeal, when weighing the risks and benefits, we felt this was a fair compromise,” Patrick Salvi, one of Darden’s lawyers, said in a statement. “Tierney has a long, difficult life ahead of her; these funds will help her obtain all the necessary medical care for the remaining decades of her life.”
AIG Aviation, one of the city’s insurance companies paid out the entire settlement, which was structured in a $15 million annuity to cover Darden’s living expenses and $100 million in cash, Salvi said in a phone interview. A spokesman for the New-York-based insurance giant declined to comment.
The city itself already pays out hundreds of millions of dollars a year in settlements, judgments and worker’s compensation claims, according to a 2016 inspector general’s report. In 2013 and 2014 those figures totaled nearly $460 million including $200 million for worker’s comp and $146 million for police misconduct and public safety claims, the report stated.
Darden’s settlement matches what has been paid out — at least $115 million — by the city so far in claims related to disgraced former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
In his client’s case, Salvi said the funds will not only pay for round-the-clock care for Darden, who had been studying modern dance when her spinal cord was severed, but also underwrite her quest to end chronic daily pain she described as “torture” during the 7-day trial. Darden is paralyzed from the waist down.
“She’ll have a team of caregivers so her parents don’t have to be her caregivers any longer,” Salvi said. “She’s going to do everything possible under medical science to reduce her pain to a level where she can function better — function at least like many paraplegics do.”
On the afternoon of Aug. 2, 2015, Darden, then a dance student, was standing with her mother and 19-year-old sister outside the airport on a lower-level street that accesses Terminal 2, according to the law firm.
The women had just returned to Chicago from Minneapolis, where they were shopping for bridesmaid dresses for an upcoming wedding, Darden’s lawyers said. A storm rolled through the area as the women were waiting to be picked up, and a 750-pound pedestrian shelter came loose and fell onto Darden.
Before the incident, Darden had lived independently in Chicago and was attending Truman College.
It was determined the shelter that injured Tierney had missing bolts, Darden’s lawyers said. An investigation later found other shelters at O’Hare were poorly maintained, with missing bolts, corroded parts or broken brackets, her lawyers said.The city has since removed all the shelters at O’Hare, Salvi said.
Darden wasn’t available for comment Tuesday, but told reporters at a news conference after the jury verdict last year: “It didn’t have to happen to me. I was more upset than anything and kind of heartbroken because my legs were taken away and those were the two things I needed to do the one thing that I love, which is dance.”
The city of Chicago, which was insured up to $500 million, had offered $30 million to settle during the trial.