MSU Researcher Awarded $7.5 Million, but Hasn’t Seen a Dime
On October 10, 2014, Michigan State University researcher Elisabeth Ostendorf was walking near the Food Safety and Toxicology Building when she was hit by a university-owned truck in the building’s driveway. Ostendorf was rushed to Sparrow Hospital in critical condition, suffering injuries to her face, brain, and skull. She was unresponsive for some time while being seen in the intensive care unit.
Several weeks later, Ostendorf was transferred to the Origami Brain Injury Research Center in Mason, Michigan, where she still lives today, receiving therapy to regain basic motor functions. She mostly uses a wheelchair and her voice is coming back little by little. She will need lifelong medical assistance.
Her now-husband, Sebastian Kuhlgert, became Ostendorf’s guardian and conservator. He had followed Ostendorf to East Lansing after they began dating at Westphalian Wilhelm University in Münster where the two were biology students. Kuhlgert sued the university in March 2015.
After the initial filing, the immediate issue at stake became determining whether Ostendorf was eligible for workers’ compensation, which would squash his efforts. On Feb. 27, 2017, Lisa Klaeren, a magistrate with the Workers Compensation Board of Magistrates, ruled that Ostendorf wasn’t eligible for workers compensation because she is a foreign national working on a J-1 visa. However, United Educators, MSU’s insurer, argued in court filings that Ostendorf was eligible and that it is not liable for the verdict because the university is self-insured for such claims.
Then, on May 27, Michigan Court of Claims Judge, Cynthia Stephens, appointed to her position by Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, ruled the driver of the vehicle that struck Ostendorf was at majority fault. Later that year, Stephens awarded Ostendorf $7,518,783. Yet, the researcher has yet to see a dime. Ongoing appeals by MSU, the university’s insurance company, and Ostendorf’s attorneys have prolonged the process.
Ostendorf’s attorneys appealed the verdict because it did not account for lost future income. “She is reliant upon others 24/7 for activities of daily living,” lawyer George Sinas said. “She cannot live alone. She’ll never be able to live alone. She’ll never work again, but you know, she has approached this with incredible dignity and courage, as has Sebastian.”
As far as the workers’ compensation ruling, the decision was appealed and the case was listed on the docket of the Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission where it was seen by eight judges who concurred with Klaeren, United Educators is seeking another appeal following this judgment.
“Multiple appeals are pending in the Michigan courts, some of them brought by United Educators (UE), some by MSU, and some by Dr. Ostendorf herself,” Robb Jones, United Educators’ senior vice president and general counsel for resolutions management, said. “As described in the publicly-filed court documents, these appeals involve many issues, including the appropriateness of the Court of Claims judgment and whether MSU has sole financial responsibility for Dr. Ostendorf’s injuries under the Michigan Workers Compensation Law. Once the courts have finished their work and provided clarity, any judgment will be paid promptly by MSU or UE.”
He also stated Ostendorf’s medical needs are already being paid for under the state’s no-fault auto insurance law. “UE hopes that the Michigan courts will soon rule on the appeals, and UE wishes Dr. Ostendorf all the best in her recovery efforts,” Jones added.
Kuhlgert is currently living one day at a time caring for his wife and making sure her basic daily needs are met, a resolution to their case yet to be seen. “There’s no way for me to really plan anything out,” he said. “It’s just living from day to day, and it’s frustrating because you have a verdict and still nothing happens.”