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His Day in Court Arrives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are a Ford Bronco and a law firm that includes Robert C. Baker. The witness list of 260 includes Christopher Reeve and Burt Bacharach. The venue is a building that unsuccessful defense attorneys snidely refer to as “the Bank.” One attorney has rented 1,200 square feet of downtown hotel space merely to store his paperwork. And when perspective jurors are screened, probably later in the week, they will be asked about their horse-betting habits.

This is Shoemaker vs. Glendora Community Hospital et al, an emotionally charged trial that’s about to start in Los Angeles County Superior Court and may last two months or more.

Former jockey Bill Shoemaker, a racing icon, is suing the State of California, a hospital and eight doctors for more than $50 million in the aftermath of a single-car accident that left him a quadriplegic six years ago.

Before Judge Frederick Lower, former dean of Loyola Law School, Shoemaker’s attorneys will try to prove that his Bronco swerved off a state road that lacked a necessary guardrail. They will also try to prove malpractice--that Shoemaker’s current physical condition is the result of the treatment he received in the hours after the accident.

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The case has made the rounds of courts and judges, accompanied by a public outcry against Shoemaker, one of racing’s most popular figures.

He had played golf with friends the day of the accident. One of them shot a hole in one, and there were drinks afterward. Shoemaker’s blood-alcohol reading was .13. The state’s maximum level is .08 for driving.

There is disagreement between Shoemaker and state chemists about whether Shoemaker’s alcohol level was affected by drugs he was given after the accident.

Another possible plaintiff in the case is the Ford Motor Co., which is seeking indemnity after reaching an out-of-court settlement with the Shoemaker family in 1993. Ford settled for $1 million then, promising to pay up to $1.5 million more if Shoemaker sued other parties and was unable to collect that much.

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Shoemaker, 65, rode 8,833 winners, which is still the record, and was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1958. He quit riding to train horses in 1990, about a year before the accident, and had major owners as clients.

In a wheelchair, Shoemaker returned to training in September of 1991, about six months after the accident. His horses earned $1.8 million in 1991, his best year, but since then the barn has struggled to reach the million-dollar mark annually. Shoemaker has had only one starter in the Breeders’ Cup, an $11-million day of racing late in the year, and he finished fifth with Diazo, his only Kentucky Derby horse, in 1993. Shoemaker won the Derby four times as a jockey.

In a deposition, Shoemaker said that, although he’d had four drinks at the golf course, he was not drunk at the time of the accident. He said he was reaching for a cellular phone on the floor of the Bronco when the accident occurred.

Asked in the deposition if his disability had affected his income, Shoemaker said, “Well, actually I can [train horses], but there are a lot of people out there that don’t think that someone in my condition can do that sort of thing and do it properly. So that cuts down on the amount of horses and clients that I could have.”

Before a jury is impaneled, the State of California will ask to be excluded from the case, based on a design-immunity statute. In a decision in another court in 1993, the state was ruled not to be liable, but that summary judgment, according to Shoemaker’s attorneys, did not take into account the absence of a highway guardrail.

Defense attorneys, who include lawyers from the firm of Robert C. Baker, lead attorney for O.J. Simpson in his civil case, blinked when the Shoemaker case was assigned to the Superior Court building at Sixth and Commonwealth avenues. For years, this courthouse has been the site of some of the biggest jury awards in Los Angeles.

Shoemaker’s lead attorney is Neil Papiano, whose clients have included Elizabeth Taylor, John Forsythe, Ivana Trump, Joan Collins and Charles O. Finley, onetime owner of the Oakland A’s. Papiano has raced horses that have been trained by Shoemaker and was one of the owners of Baldomero, the first stakes winner Shoemaker saddled.

During a hearing on pretrial motions last week, H. Gilbert Jones, one of the defense attorneys, summarized the case, saying, “This is about possible negligence, causation and damages.”

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