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Acrimony Mars Couple’s Prosperity

Times Staff Writer

Seventeen months ago, George and Janet Benda celebrated a record $3.26-million settlement that the Redondo Beach man won from Los Angeles County after he was crippled by a chunk of concrete that fell from Manhattan Beach Pier.

The couple said their lives were finally looking up after the horror of the accident and nearly 2 1/2 years of rehabilitation for George Benda, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic.

Since then, however, the couple have filed for divorce and are locked in an increasingly bitter battle over whether Benda, 50, must share the settlement, the largest lump sum ever awarded by the county.

Asks for $1 Million

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In a lawsuit filed in Torrance Superior Court, Benda charges that his estranged wife temporarily made off with $450,000 of the money and his pet cat. The lawsuit demands more than $1 million in damages, charging that Janet Benda disappeared for five days last year with $450,000 in gold coins, a portion of the settlement awarded to her husband after he was paralyzed from the rib cage down in 1984.

Janet Benda, 48, who now lives in Marin County, insisted in an interview last week that it was she who had suffered mental anguish. She said her husband became depressed and foul-tempered after the accident, verbally abusing her although she took care of him around the clock.

Benda had been stretching in preparation for a run on the beach when a 150-pound chunk of concrete broke loose from the bottom of the 74-year-old Manhattan Beach pier and fell onto his back, severing his spinal column. The couple had been living together at the time, and they were married about one year after the accident.

Less than eight months later, they filed for divorce. Janet Benda claimed in her divorce papers that she was entitled to share in an estimated $2 million in community property, including the gold coins. She later filed a separate palimony lawsuit, claiming that before the marriage Benda promised her at least one-third of any settlement.

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In his lawsuit, Benda said that last November, just before divorce papers were filed, his wife offered to take the gold coins out of a safe deposit box at a Torrance bank and exchange them with a commodities broker for an expected profit of $17,000.

When his wife did not return, the lawsuit said, Benda “did not know whether she had been kidnaped with the gold by criminals, whether she was dead or whether she had just stolen his gold.”

Most of the coins were eventually returned, Benda said in an interview, but he said he lost about $8,000 that would have been made in a sale.


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