Judge Awards $2 Million to Woman Burned in '80

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 20-year-old Point Mugu woman has won $2.17 million in damages from the federal government, 10 years after an off-duty sailor accidentally doused her with burning gasoline while working on a car.

Christa Washington was 10 years old at the time of the accident that left her scarred for life, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Roger West, who defended the government in a lawsuit filed by Washington's family.

On July 13, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald S.W. Lew awarded Washington damages from the U.S. government, which included $2 million for pain and suffering, $47,070 for past medical expenses, $25,000 for home nursing care, $95,000 for future medical expenses and $10,000 for impairment of future earning capacity.

Washington said Tuesday that no amount of money can make up for the 10 years of reconstructive surgery, skin grafts and "pure hell" she has been through to repair the injuries she suffered.

She said she has no memory of the accident or of her first two weeks in the emergency ward. "The first thing I remember was after the accident, being in the hospital, fighting for my life," she said.

On Sept. 19, 1980, Washington was playing with friends across the street from her family's home in military housing at the Pacific Missile Test Center. Two Navy enlisted men were trying to start a 1964 Rambler in a garage, in front of which the children were playing.

Larry Bartole was pouring gasoline from a coffee can into the car's open carburetor to prime it while Neil Cleaves turned the key to crank the balky engine, said Washington's attorney, John Zanghi.

The carburetor backfired, igniting the gasoline and startling Bartole, who spilled some of it on his arm and ran out of the garage, Zanghi said. Bartole later testified that he tripped over a stool or a bucket, spraying the flaming gasoline onto Washington.

Bartole and Cleaves immediately smothered the fire with a blanket, but Washington had already suffered burns on her head, neck, shoulder, arm and leg. Bartole suffered burns to his arms.

Washington said that since the accident, she has undergone more than 20 sessions of reconstructive surgery and skin grafts under general anesthesia, and countless more under local anesthesia. Her destroyed right ear was rebuilt from tissue grafts taken from the unburned part of her body, she said.

Zanghi said she may also have to have an artificial joint implanted in her burned thumb, which may suffer from arthritis in the future.

"She would have been a beautiful woman, there's no doubt about it, but she's still badly scarred," Zanghi said Tuesday.

Washington said doctors allowed her to go home after about two months because her mother was once a nurse in a hospital burn unit in South Carolina and could change her dressings and handle much of her care at home.

Washington said school officials wanted to keep her back in the fifth grade. "But I refused to be held back. With tutors and a lot of hard work I was able to keep up," she said.

Washington's mother, Barbara Washington, sued Cleaves, Bartole and the federal government, but Zanghi said he later dropped the men from the suit because they had little money that could be taken for damages.

The case finally went to a non-jury trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, where Judge Lew ruled in the government's favor and against Washington in September, 1988.

But Zanghi appealed the case to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which late last year reversed the lower court decision to Washington's favor and returned the case to Lew to determine damages.

Washington, who still lives with her parents, said she sees Bartole often in her neighborhood. "Being a Christian, I have to learn to forgive or forget, but there's a certain something in me that can't forgive or forget . . . . I can say, 'Hi,' but every time I see him, I think, 'This is the person that disfigured me for life.' "

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