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Chrysler Bankruptcy Stalls Couple's Product Liability Case

Joseph and Jeanne Polio were hoping for a measure of justice and the security to ensure that Jeanne, who is paralyzed from the chest down from a 2005 rollover crash, can live out her days at home.

Instead, they now are among an ocean of unsecured creditors and uncertainty in the massive Chrysler bankruptcy case.

Their day in court was scheduled for November, but it seems unlikely that the case will move forward, according to their attorney. And even if it does, once Chrysler emerges from bankruptcy as planned as a new corporate entity with Italian automaker Fiat, there might be precious few assets left in the old corporate shell of the nation's third-largest automaker to pay people like the Polios. "This is a government-sponsored bankruptcy, so nobody knows what's going to happen," said the Polios New Haven attorney. "We're facing substantial uncertainty." They're not alone. Last week, attorneys and a number of consumer groups filed an objection to Chrysler's bankruptcy plan, arguing that the company wants to sell virtually all of its assets "free and clear" of any liability for legal claims on vehicles purchased before the bankruptcy.

Some of those consumer groups testified last week before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, imploring lawmakers to intervene on behalf of injured parties if the court won't.

Among the people to offer testimony was Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety. He told ABC News that "the bankruptcy court outright ought to address the issue of why consumers are getting nothing, and if the court won't do it, then the government needs to step in because consumers who are injured should not walk away with nothing, which is exactly what is happening."

Jeanne Polio will never walk again.

On July 10, 2005, she and her husband, a retired New Haven police captain, had left a pizza shop and were en route to the gym when their lives unexpectedly and irrevocably changed. They were in their 2000 Jeep Cherokee when an 18-year-old unexpectedly pulled out in front of them. In the ensuing crash, the Jeep went airborne and landed on its roof, which crushed on the passenger side, leaving Jeanne Polio with a spinal cord injury, paralyzed from the chest down.

"Our biggest concern is the future," said Joseph Polio, who is 65 and is his wife's primary caregiver. He said he worries what will happen to her if he dies before she does. "I try to stay in good shape because she needs me."

But like other consumers with product liability lawsuits against Chrysler, their prospects of receiving much money are poor.

In bankruptcy proceedings, they are among a vast pool of unsecured creditors, along with corporations and other litigants with injury or lemon-law claims. The status also leaves them among the last to get paid from whatever is left of Chrysler assets.

Secured creditors, who have collateral, receive preferential treatment and get the first crack at assets.

It's not entirely clear how the court will determine whether the Polios and others like them are entitled to any money. It's possible that the lawsuit will be remanded to a trial court to determine its merits, and if an award is granted, they will go back to bankruptcy court to try to collect.

Pothin, because of this case, has become well versed in the vernacular of rollover crashes and SUV engineering. American-made SUVs typically have four roof-support pillars on either side that connect to a roof rail, which in concert are designed to prevent a roof crush in a rollover and meet minimum federal motor vehicle safety standards. Those standards, Pothin said, have been unchanged for 30 years and are "grossly inadequate."

Volvos, in contrast, are designed to exceed by two times U.S. requirements, he said.

The couple, married for 37 years, is expecting their first grandchild, but are unsure how they can make a trip to North Carolina given Jeanne Polio's medical limitations.

"Life changes. Nobody in life is guaranteed a freebie. We're still the luckiest people in the world. We have each other," Joseph Polio said.

Polio teaches three criminal justice courses at the University of New Haven and that money is spent on part-time home health care.

They live off his $60,000 city pension in their East Haven Cape Cod-style home.

The couple did receive $100,000 from the other driver's insurance carrier, and some funds from the state underinsured drivers fund, but invested nearly $175,000 modifying their home to accommodate Jeanne in her wheelchair.

"We don't hold any malice against the kid who did this," he said. "I feel very badly for him and his family because he didn't set out that morning to hurt anybody. We pray for him a lot."

For Jeanne, it's hard to put into words what was lost in the accident.

After Joe retired, the couple did some traveling and had hoped to do more.

They were active, canoeing, biking, inline skating. She no longer can care for her own home or cook dinner.

"Just everyday life. Where do you start?" she said.