Elisabeth Ostendorf and the six-year fight for justice

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (WLNS)– Elisabeth Ostendorf is a scientist who came to East Lansing in 2012 from Germany to study photosynthesis. Elisabeth and her now-husband Sebastian Kuhlgert have been in Michigan for almost 10 years, but their time here is nothing that they thought it would be.

Elisabeth was hit by a Michigan State University vehicle while walking from her laboratory. “Elisabeth walked across the pedestrian walkway, as the truck was backing up, the truck did not see Elisabeth, and she saw the truck at the very last second and attempted to get out of the way and the truck ran her over going backward,” said her attorney, George Sinas.

She sustained multiple injuries, including a traumatic brain injury.

“She actually had a stroke in her brain stem which caused her to have what’s called locked-in syndrome, and it’s a condition where ultimately an individual is conscious and aware of what’s going on cognitively, they’re in tack but physically they are basically paralyzed within their body, they are locked-in,” said Amanda Carr, Elisabeth’s former occupational therapist.

Elisabeth was in Sparrow hospital for two months before transferring to Origami Rehabilitation in Mason. When she arrived, Carr says she was not able to walk, talk, eat and the communication she could give was just the blinking of her eyes.

While she fought in Origami to get better, a legal battle was continuing in court over what compensation Elisabeth is entitled to.

“The case involved a very unique issue of law as to whether Elisabeth had a right to pursue a liability claim against Michigan state or whether her rights were only to only draw workers’ compensation benefits… you can’t do both,” said Sinas.

Except it’s more complex than that, there is a provision in the workers’ compensation law that only applies to people like Elisabeth….” foreign nationals that are here in Michigan doing scientific research… and that provision says that those people are not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits,” said Sinas.

So what Elisabeth could do is pursue a liability claim against MSU. “Michigan state took the position of workman’s comp isn’t answerable here, liability insurance is answerable here,” said Sinas.

The university’s insurance company, United Educators, disagreed.

“Michigan State University’s insurance company argued that provision did not apply to Elisabeth, that she was entitled to workman’s comp and therefore she had to take the comp and couldn’t sue Michigan State,” Sinas added.

Over the next six years, Elisabeth’s case would jump from courtroom to courtroom.

Sebastian was asked, “what did you think about it taking so long?” “It’s frustrating… I mean it’s very very frustrating….you want to plan your life a little bit and basically be in limbo just waiting for things to happen,” said Sebastian.

During the course of those six years, 13 different judges all ruled in Elisabeth’s favor. “All of those judges agreed that she was entitled to go to trial against Michigan state… and she went to trial and she prevailed,” said Sinas.

Finally, in November of 2020, Elisabeth received a check from United Educators for a substantial amount of money, but it’s not clear if it was all from United Educators or if MSU chipped in as well.

“I’ve been representing seriously injured people for nearly 40 years…and I’ve been involved in a lot of complicated cases but I can’t recall a case that was as legally complicated as this one,” said Sinas.

Sinas says there was more to take away from this case though, than just a win in court.

“For the lawyers on the case, we learned a lot, and I’m not talking about law, we learned a lot about life,” said Sinas. They learned a lot about life someone who almost could have lost hers and from another who lived the promise “for better, or for worse.”

Elisabeth and Sebastian on their wedding day in 2018.

Sinas says the last day of the trial, Sebastian walked up to him and thanked him for all the work he did for them. “I looked at him and I said with all sincerity, actually Sebastian we’re the ones who need to thank you because in this case, you showed us what love was…justice prevailed and so did love,” said Sinas.

A spokesperson from Michigan State University told 6 News that they are happy to see Elisabeth get the money she was owed.

When 6 News reached out to United Educators for comment, they responded “We have no comment on this matter that was resolved some time ago.”

Elisabeth and Sebastian do have plans to go back to Germany but aren’t sure when yet.

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