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Case Goes to Trial : Ex-Wrestler Says a Dream Died in Crash

Times Staff Writer

Danny Coates turned on the television last month to watch the wrestling competition at the Olympic Games in Seoul but soon snapped off the set in frustration.

It was too hard to see young men that he had once known and wrestled competing for gold and glory, he says, too hard to accept the fact that he had lost whatever chance he once had at that same success.

Three years ago, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Coates was the star wrestler at Cal State Fullerton, winner of both the California and the West Coast titles.

But the Rialto man says a car accident in Anaheim that severely injured his arm and his leg changed all that. This week he went to Superior Court in Santa Ana to try to convince a jury of that claim and to collect financial damages for a shattered dream.

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He has not wrestled since the accident.

Works as Youth Counselor

Now working as a youth counselor at the Orangewood Children’s Home in Santa Ana, Coates is suing the driver of the car in which he was a passenger, a former friend from college whose sister he once dated, as well as the driver of the other car involved. He has asked for $315,000 in damages.

Mark Hopkins, one of two defense attorneys, said as the trial opened this week in Superior Court before Judge John L. Flynn that he is confident he will fend off damages. Each driver claims that the other was responsible for the accident.

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But Hopkins acknowledged that Coates’ athletic prowess could make his case more appealing to a jury than many of the thousands of traffic-accident suits filed in local courts each year.

“His accomplishments are a fact, and a jury is going to consider that,” the attorney said in an interview.

In his opening statement to the jury earlier this week, Coates’ attorney, Michael Parr, focused on the impact of the accident on his client’s athletic hopes. Parr told the jury that Coates, once a “skinny kid,” had “dedicated himself to building up his body” by lifting weights and training extensively at college, all in the hope of achieving international distinction as a wrestler in the 190-pound weight class.

Called Outstanding

Coates’ wresting coach at Fullerton, Dan Lewis, called his former star an “outstanding” and hard-working wrestler and maintained in an interview that Coates had “as good a shot as anyone in the country” at making the Olympic squad.

Coates achieved his highest accolades when he won the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. championship in his weight class in 1985, then lost in the national championships.

Coach Lewis said there was “no way” Coates could compete after his right arm was crushed in the car accident on Aug. 4, 1985. Coates says he lost mobility and strength in the arm, suffered extensive muscle damage and now suffers intense pain.

The Honda in which he was a passenger was traveling down Euclid Street in Anaheim when it collided with a Mercury Cougar driven by Rachel Lara, then 16, at the intersection of Medical Center Drive. Lara was making a turn.

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Lara and the driver of the car carrying Coates, Lee Whipple of Placentia, suffered minor bruises.

Point of Argument

Coates claimed in testimony this week that he asked Whipple, a fellow student at Cal State Fullerton, to slow down just before the accident.

Whipple denied that when she took the stand. And, commenting later on the suit and the rift it has caused between her and Coates, she said: “He was a good wrestler, but he wasn’t Olympic material. He had numerous injuries before the accident.”

Coates said the accident and the mounting medical bills that followed hurt him financially and also forced him to change his career plans. A criminal justice major, he had hoped to go into law enforcement after his days as a wrestler.

But he said the emotional impact has been more damaging.

“I still haven’t really gotten over not being able to wrestle. I’m still having trouble with it, watching my friends compete while I can’t,” he said. ‘If you get hit on the mat, that’s one thing, but to get sidelined in a car accident, I still can’t handle that.”


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