After a video documentary chronicles an elderly widower’s post-crash life, offer climbs close to $1 million.
Along a stretch of highway in Western North Carolina, two old soul mates sat side by side in their car, cruising and enjoying each other’s company as they had done many times before, neither knowing this would be their last drive together.
A heating oil truck in the opposite lane swerved across the center line and smashed head-on into the couple’s car. A photo taken that afternoon of Jan. 2, 2009, shows Stefan Juchnowycz, then 86, strapped to a stretcher near the wreckage. The roof of his car is sheared off, hood peeled back. His wife, Ingeburg, 90, lies on an orange backboard on the pavement, her neck broken and with a firefighter and paramedic bent over her.
Before they were separated and rushed to the hospital, emergency workers wheeled Stefan’s stretcher close to Inge so he could touch her hand.
She died of a brain hemorrhage 20 days later. For the first time in nearly six decades, Stefan was without his “dream girl.”
“What I miss mostly is to make her happy every day,” he says in a video documentary filmed after the crash.
The documentary was pivotal in the wrongful death and personal injury lawsuit that Stefan and Inge’s estate filed in Henderson County Superior Court against the truck driver and his employer, the Henderson Oil Company, said the Juchnowyczes’ attorney, Scott D. Beal of Mike Lewis Attorneys in Winston-Salem.
In taking the case, Beal was faced with the task of proving the value of a human life, one that had spanned nearly a century, and conveying the depth of Stefan’s loss. The video, he said, was the most effective means to that end.
“Everybody looks at cases involving the elderly and their immediate response is ‘He is so old, what is his life really worth? His life expectancy isn’t very long,’” he said. “After you get a sense for what he’s lost, it’s just a whole new awakening.”
The trucking company’s insurer accepted liability from the beginning, first offering to settle the case for $400,000 and then $500,000, according to Beal. But after an adjuster and the trucking company’s attorney watched Stefan’s video, their settlement offer nearly doubled, he said.
The $935,000 settlement was finalized Aug. 26.
Elizabeth E. McConnell of Northup McConnell & Sizemore in Asheville represented the defendants. She said that she “considers the mediation process to be confidential” and declined further comment.
In the video, Stefan, who speaks with a thick European accent and wears large wire frame glasses, describes seeing Inge for the first time on a London subway platform in 1949. He nervously followed her to a shop, where he gave her three roses and then ran away.
“She was a tall girl. She was slim. Very impressive looking,” he says. “I just fell for her.”
They met again a few weeks later and were married in 1956. They later moved to Canada before coming to the U.S., where Stefan worked as an astrophysicist for CBS Laboratories from 1964 to 1984. He served as the project engineer on the first photographic mission to the moon, which paved the way for the Apollo 11 spaceflight.
“I fulfilled a fraction of the nation’s dream,” says Stefan, who in the video is backed by a wall-sized black-and-white photograph of the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, which was taken as part of his project and is where Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. became the first humans to land on the moon.
The Juchnowyczes retired to North Carolina in the mid-1980s and spent 23 years exploring the back roads and towns between the state’s mountains and its coast before the crash occurred and “the world went black,” Stefan says.
“She was laughing in the car. We both were laughing,” he says, “and all of a sudden the truck appeared on our side.”
The truck driver, Perry Williams, was following the traffic ahead of him on US Highway 64 in Hendersonville too closely and did not have enough time to stop when the cars in front of him braked, according to Beal. Inge’s injuries proved to be fatal and Stefan’s leg was broken in the collision and his scalp was lacerated, but Williams was not seriously hurt.
While discovery had not commenced when the settlement was reached, Beal said there were no indications that the truck had mechanical problems or that Williams was asleep, fatigued or intoxicated at the wheel. Still, Beal wasn’t surprised that the trucking company readily admitted negligence on behalf of their driver.
“Truck drivers are akin to airline pilots in that they’re professionally trained, rigorously regulated, have inspections to do, have limited numbers of hours that they can operate – they are trained professionals,” Beal said. “They aren’t supposed to make mistakes like this and when they do it opens a whole big can of worms for the company.”
The nearly $1 million settlement will be split between Stefan and Inge’s estates, with the two children as heirs. Their daughter and her husband cared for Stefan for a short time after the crash, but when he recovered he returned to the home he shared with Inge. He keeps fresh roses in a vase beneath her picture and speaks to her daily.
And Stefan, who recently turned 89, has gone back to work designing alternative energy sources and is using his portion of the settlement money to pay for patent applications. He says Inge is happy when she sees him working.
“Believe me or not, some days I am working for 15 hours a day,” he says. “Some people would say I’m a nut, but that helps me and I know it makes her happy. The body died but the love did not die. The love continues.”
Type of action: Wrongful death/personal injury
Injuries alleged: Wrongful death, broken neck, broken leg
Name of case: Stefan Juchnowycz, et al vs. Perry Williams, et al
Court: Henderson County Superior Court
Case number: 10-CVS-2073
Name of judge, arbitrator or mediator: N/A, pretrial settlement
Special damages: $187,066 for medical costs
Verdict or Settlement: Settlement
Date of verdict or settlement: April 2011, finalized Aug. 26
Most helpful expert: Dr. Matthew Edwards, Winston-Salem
Insurance Carrier: Federated Mutual Insurance
Attorney for plaintiff: Scott D. Beal (Winston-Salem)
Attorney for defendant: Elizabeth E. McConnell (Asheville)