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Woman injured on MSU's campus in 2014 continues to fight for justice

Meet Elisabeth Ostendorf. She's a German born research scientist in her 30's who led a full and active life, centered around her family, friends, work, and love of travel.

"She was kind, she was giving, she was compassionate, she was warm, she really cared about people,” Ostendorf’s attorney, George Sinas said. “And she was brilliant, absolutely brilliant and had a lot to offer this world."

Those who know Ostendorf say she was dedicated to her work in the field of bio-chemistry and molecular biology and she was eager to use her knowledge to help make our world a better place.

So, in August of 2012, Dr. Ostendorf set foot on the campus of Michigan State University to continue her mission at the MSU Plant Biology lab.

"To do research on how to increase the production of bio fuels so that we can make the world a little greener and a little safer for everyone,” Sinas said. “And she chose that field because she really wanted to make a difference."

But after a few short years of research, that all changed.

On October 10, 2014, a routine walk to her car from work tragically changed her life forever.

Ostendorf was crossing a pedestrian walkway when she was run over by a university vehicle driven by an MSU student employee.

Doctor Lynn Munoz was the receiving trauma surgeon at Sparrow Hospital when Ostendorf came into the emergency room. The following is part of a video deposition of Munoz describing Ostendorf's overall condition.

"When she first arrived on the gurney, she was a patient who arrived gurgling on her own blood, barely conscious,” she said. “I didn't think she'd live. I honestly didn't think she'd make it through the night when she was admitted. it was sad to see that she suffered her stroke after we were all thinking she's going to pull through it."

Medical records and court testimony reveal those brain injuries left Ostendorf disabled and in need of 24-hour institutional care.

Ostendorf now lives at the Origami Brain Injury Rehabilitation Center in Mason.

Confined to a wheelchair, Ostendorf receives rehab therapy on a daily basis. She struggles with the simple things in life that many of us may take for granted, like eating and talking.

And while she's making progress, her disability is permanent.

While Ostendorf is working to rebuild a new life, a legal battle over how she got here continues to loom like a black cloud over her head.

"I have been mortified that this woman has been denied justice for three and a half years,” Sinas said.

After her accident in 2014, Ostendorf's now, husband, Sebastian, pursued a lawsuit against the university, which raised an important question: what legal obligations does MSU have to Ostendorf?

The university determined that she is not eligible for workers compensation benefits because she's here on a visa.

"Because she's not entitled to workers comp, she's able to pursue a liability claim against Michigan State,” Sinas said. “That liability claim was in fact pursued and was tried in April of 2017."

But MSU’s insurance company, United Educators, disagrees with MSU’s position and says Ostendorf is entitled to workers comp, and therefore, cannot pursue a liability claim against the university, which would be paid for by the insurance company directly.

The judge in that case found Michigan State was negligent in the operation of their truck and as a result of that negligence, Elisabeth sustained catastrophic brain damage,” Sinas said.

That judge awarded Ostendorf $7.5 million, but MSU won't pay her because United Educators won’t reimburse the money.

"Michigan State has publicly taken the position, in all of these courts, that the position of United Educators is legally wrong,” Sinas added. “And they've won on that position."

In fact, court records show at least 10 judges from three different judicial tribunal courts in Michigan have agreed with MSU’s position and each time, considered and rejected United Educators argument, but the insurance company continues to fight the lawsuit.

"They just keep appealing because ya know what, the system is set up in such a way that you can just keep appealing,” Sinas said. "You'd think enough is enough. When is Michigan State going to say 'enough is enough!' How much more agony and misery do we want to put this terribly disabled woman through? Is there no compassion anymore? Or is it all just about money?"

During a one-on-one interview with MSU Interim John Engler a few weeks ago, 6 News asked Engler about this woman’s situation and the fact that she has not been paid her money.

Ilitch: “The university has figured out a way to pay the Nassar lawsuits and then fight the insurance company later. My question would be, to the university, why can't you do the same thing with this woman? Instead she has kind of been stuck in the middle, playing monkey in the middle with MSU and its insurance company and she has not seen a dime of this money. Why won't the university handle this the same exact way its handling the Nassar settlement?"

"This woman was grievously injured, very serious accident on this campus,” Engler said. “And she's entitled to the insurance payment. The university is in full agreement with her. In the case of the victims of Larry Nassar, that was a mediated settlement. Nothing went to trial and in the case of the young women who was our graduate student here, the insurance company is obligated to pay, they have fought it every step of the way."

Engler continued: "We can't pay for the insurance company, it's not, this is a lawsuit where she has won the insurance company has lost. They keep delaying and they're attitude is well, we'll see. Well, I think we will see. They're going to pay in full."

Sinas disagrees with Engler’s argument.

"In Elisabeth Ostendorf's case there was a full trial, there was a judge that said Michigan State is liable,” he said. “There never was any judicial pronouncement from any court that Michigan State was liable for Nassar. Nothing. The case never went to court, here it did."

Despite this, United Educators continues to appeal the suit. Ostendorf’s visa expires at the end of this month.

“She is not going to go anywhere without a big settlement and the care she's receiving is superb,” Engler said. “But she's entitled to damages, she was grievously injured."

United Educators declined to comment on this story, but an online search to its website is shedding some light on how the company operates.

The risk retention group provides liability insurance and risk management services to nearly 1,600 members representing schools, colleges, and universities across the United States.

The company touts its victories with legal challenges and prides itself on establishing important precedents and it's all backed by a “Team Approach,” a promise to its members, that it will deliver a strong defense and effective claims resolutions and is prepared to “go to extensive lengths to protect each member, thereby protecting all members."

United Educators will be responsible for paying out a portion of the $500 million settlement to the more than 300 women sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar.

To this day, the insurance company remains at odds with Penn State, because it continues to deny the $42 million dollars in claims the university settled with the survivors of Jerry Sandusky. That settlement was reached in October of 2013.

"It is about a complete lack of concern for the human aspect of this case,” Sinas said. “You have a human aspect, you have real victims, victims in the confines of a university. Victims that were injured by the conduct of the university and that is what is so disturbing here."

Which begs a major question, according to Sinas.

"Who outta be making the policy decisions? The tough policy decisions that deal with whether or not these students and these faculty people will be treated fairly? He said. “Should it be the insurance company? Or should it be the university that was elected, the university trustees that were elected by the taxpayers to do what’s right?

Time is of the essence in this case and that's because, Ostendorf's visa expires at the end of this month on July 31st.

It has already been extended several times, given her current state and recovery. She fears she will be forced to go back to Germany without seeing a dime.

 


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